Cervical mucus (CM) is a completely normal, healthy part of your vagina’s natural state of being (1). It serves many purposes and changes throughout your life and menstrual cycle, which is how it (along with basal body temperature) can be used to assist with achieving or avoiding pregnancy. If you’re starting to chart your menstrual cycle, you may have questions about CM that might be outside the normal patterns of CM.
But how do you know whether or not to worry about that stuff on your underwear? That’s what we’re here to talk about.
Before we can talk about abnormal, we have to define normal. One aspect of CM that might be considered tricky is that it doesn’t look the same every day throughout your cycle, and it may not be the same as everyone else’s. But here are a few truths that usually apply.
Helps the sperm reach the egg for fertilization (2).
Filters out morphologically abnormal sperm (those that are not the proper shape) (3).
Protects the vagina and uterus from foreign bacteria (2).
Changes with the menstrual cycle (2) in some variation of the predictable pattern after your period from dry -> sticky -> creamy -> egg white -> watery around ovulation, then back to dry or sticky (4).
Whether you’ve been charting your cycle for a while or just started, you may have noticed that your CM doesn’t follow the pattern that’s usually described. That’s ok! Not everyone will experience all types of mucus or your version of that type of CM may be a little different than how it’s normally described. If you want detailed information about how CM changes with your menstrual cycle, read more about The Many Faces of Cervical Mucus here.
What’s not normal?
Now that we know what normal CM is supposed to do and look like, let’s talk about abnormal CM that may not allow sperm through even around ovulation, allow or increase vaginal bacteria that would kill sperm, or may rarely contain antibodies to sperm (5).
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What about discharge that’s not CM?
Normal, healthy CM will not have a strong odor. If you smell something fishy or foul, see a health professional right away. But discharge doesn’t necessarily have to have a nasty odor to be abnormal.
Remember we talked about sticky CM? Sticky CM is very different than the discharge that appears with infections, and if you’re charting your cycle and observing CM, you’ll be able to spot the difference right away.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) also causes discharge, but it will be thin and gray, green, or white and will have a fishy, foul-smelling odor. Itchiness and a burning sensation when you pee are also symptoms of BV (6).
But it doesn’t have to have a foul smell to be a sign of infection. Yeast infections are often accompanied by a discharge that’s described as thick and clumpy, sort of like cottage cheese, but it usually won’t have a strong smell. You may also have a whitish coating in and around your vagina. Most yeast infections itching or burning and uncomfortable or painful sex (7).
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may cause similar symptoms. For example, gonorrhea may cause burning while urinating and yellow or bloody discharge (8). Chlamydia may cause pain or burning while peeing, pain during sex, and vaginal discharge that may be yellowish and have a strong smell (9).
What about fertile CM after ovulation?
If you have wet, watery vaginal sensation or even what looks like fertile-quality CM a few days before your period, that is actually normal and is associated with the corpus luteum disintegrating before menstruation (4).
If you have clear or whitish discharge all the time, that could be a sign of cervical erosion. Gummy or yellow discharge that is thick and tacky could be normal sticky CM, but it might also be a sign of cervicitis, or an inflammation in the cervix.
The longer you observe and chart your CM, the more familiar with it you’ll become, and the easier it will be to identify what is normal for you and what is not (4). If you ever have concerns about your health, always speak honestly with your healthcare provider. Pelvic exams may not be the most fun way to spend your time, but getting proper treatment is vital for your reproductive and overall health.