Pregnancy can be a roller coaster, to say the least, filled with new (and sometimes totally weird) physical developments. Your boobs alone can undergo seven changes during pregnancy, so you might be wondering how pregnancy affects everything else, including your vaginal discharge.
“Discharge can definitely change a little bit during pregnancy,” Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF. Here’s what you need to know about pregnancy discharge, plus when it should raise a red flag.
Just to clarify, because there’s a lot of confusion around this: Discharge is generally a sign that your vagina is doing its job.
If you were trying to conceive before getting pregnant, you might have kept close tabs on your discharge and how it changed during your menstrual cycle. Even if not, you’re probably still in the habit of at least glancing at the stuff that’s on your toilet paper when you wipe or in your underwear at the end of the day because, frankly, discharge is kind of fascinating.
Some people think any discharge at all = no good, very bad vagina issues, but that’s not the case. Your vagina is a pretty sensitive place, and it works hard to keep itself well-lubricated, maintain the right pH balance, and fend off “bad” bacteria while fostering “good” bacteria, Jessica Shepherd, M.D., a minimally-invasive gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, tells SELF.
One of the ways your vagina does that is by cleaning itself with discharge. Your discharge comes from a combo of egg white-esque mucus made by your cervix (the low, narrow part of your uterus) and fluids from your vagina, Dr. Shepherd explains. This helps clean things out down there. If you’re wondering if this means you don’t actually need to clean your vagina, you’re absolutely right! Keep soap out of there, because your vagina has this whole thing on lock. (You can use a mild, gentle soap on your vulva, if you like, but plain ol’ water should do the trick just fine.)
Your discharge usually fluctuates to reflect your estrogen levels based on where you are in your menstrual cycle. Since your cycle changes during pregnancy, your discharge can, too.
Let’s start with how the discharge situation goes down when you’re not pregnant. Your period marks the start of your menstrual cycle, and obviously that involves some blood coming out of your vagina. But you might also experience a bit of brown discharge before your period really lets loose. This is completely normal and can happen when your period blood hasn’t ramped up to a full flow yet. The blood isn’t moving through your vagina as quickly, so it’s exposed to oxygen for a longer amount of time, going from red to brown before it gets outside your body. (This little bit of blood could also make your normally light-colored discharge take on a pink-ish tinge, Dr. Shepherd says.)
You could also experience brown discharge after your period instead of a lighter color. Whatever color your discharge is, for three to four days after your period, it probably won’t look too slimy because you won’t be pumping out very much cervical mucus in this time, the Mayo Clinic says. That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t experience any discharge at all, because your vagina will still clean itself, but you won’t have much mucus specifically.
In the next three to five days, as you creep towards ovulation, your estrogen levels begin to rise to make your uterine lining grow in preparation for a potential pregnancy. You might see more discharge that looks white, yellow, or cloudy. It also will probably feel sticky if you touch it, the Mayo Clinic says.
The closer you are to ovulation, the more your estrogen rises, and the clearer, thinner, and slipperier your discharge will become, the Mayo Clinic says. For three to four days before and during ovulation, your body is determined to help any sperm get to and fertilize an egg, hence that super-slick discharge—it makes it easier for the sperm to travel.
After you ovulate, if you don’t get pregnant, your estrogen drops. Your discharge might get thicker and cloudier, and you may even have some “dry” days before your period. (Or pink or brown discharge that heralds impending menstruation.) Then you get your period and the cycle starts all over again.
One major exception to this series of events is if you’re on hormonal birth control that suppresses ovulation. Since so much of the way your discharge changes is pegged to your ovulation, removing that factor will eliminate a lot of the fluctuations in your discharge.
This is also totally different if you get pregnant. When you’re pregnant, levels of estrogen in your body continue to rise, Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Your uterine lining needs to keep growing so it can basically be a 24/7 buffet to that growing fetus. Due to that heightened estrogen, you may notice that your discharge continues to be pretty wet, slippery, and milky white or clear. (Although, if that’s not the case for you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not pregnant or your pregnancy isn’t viable—every person’s body is different.)
Pregnancy also causes an increase in blood volume, which may boost the amount of discharge your body produces, Dr. Schaffir says.
Once you get close to going into labor, you might see even more mucus in your discharge, culminating in the expulsion of your mucus plug, which forms during pregnancy to block your cervix from any bacteria that could potentially enter your uterus. Several days before you give birth or right as labor starts, your body will start to push out your mucus plug in a phenomenon that’s sometimes called your “bloody show.” This can look like a bunch of clear, pink, or slightly bloody discharge, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explains, and it’s a sign that labor is right around the corner.
While some changes in your discharge during pregnancy can be normal, certain ones should raise a red flag.
If your discharge is really watery, you should call your doctor. This could be a sign that you’re leaking amniotic fluid, the liquid that surrounds and protects a fetus in the womb, Dr. Greves says. Amniotic fluid is what comes out when your water breaks, so depending on when this is happening, it might be expected (if you’re full-term) or might be happening too early (if you’re not). If your water breaks before your 37th week of pregnancy, it can lead to complications like infection and issues with the placenta or umbilical cord. (However, Dr. Greves adds, if you notice this watery discharge only tends to happen after you cough or sneeze, it’s pretty likely that it’s just pee—but you should still get it checked out, just in case.)
You’ll also want to call your doctor if your discharge is bloody. Some light spotting during pregnancy can be totally fine and not a sign that anything’s wrong. It could also be your bloody show. But since heavier bleeding during pregnancy could indicate problems like a cervical infection or miscarriage, among others, you should talk to your doctor to make sure everything’s OK.
Also, keep in mind that you can still get vaginal and sexually transmitted infections when you’re pregnant, so any weird discharge changes could signal something funky in that arena. A yeast infection, for example, can create a thick, chunky, cottage cheese-like discharge. Bacterial vaginosis can lead to fishy-smelling discharge that’s thin and gray or white. Sexually transmitted infections can cause different types of discharge, depending on the type, so the general rule is that any discharge that’s a different color than your usual discharge (like yellow or green), that smells strange, or that comes with other symptoms like itching and burning is worth bringing up with your doctor, Dr. Shepherd says. They’ll be able to point you towards treatment if necessary, calm your worries if not, and generally make sure your vagina and pregnancy are as healthy as possible.