If you’re looking out for ovulation symptoms so you know when you’re fertile, you might be dismayed to find that most signs aren’t very obvious. Unlike other animals, our vulvas don’t swell up, we don’t go into heat, and we don’t start emitting irresistible man-attracting perfume. So what’s a girl to do if she wants to know when to have sex to get pregnant? It’s important to know when ovulation occurs and how long your fertile window lasts, but difficult to get a good answer.
Luckily, there are some subtle physiological signs of ovulation, and when you learn how to spot them, you can time intercourse around your peak fertile time. Some of these signs vary from woman to woman, but if you track your cycle you can get a sense of what’s normal for you.
Let’s get one thing clear. Ovulation is a momentary event of the egg bursting out of the follicle and leaving the ovary. Are there any physical signs that happen at the very moment of ovulation? About 20 percent of women may experience ovulation pain, but this doesn’t necessarily happen at the exact moment of ovulation. There are physical signs when your body is preparing to ovulate and other physical signs that happen after ovulation. If you’re trying to get pregnant, the most important signs are the ones that your body is preparing to ovulate.
What is ovulation?
Ovulation is the release of an egg from an ovarian follicle. After the egg is released, it travels through the fallopian tubes en route to the uterus. If the egg is fertilized by a sperm cell during its journey to the uterus, pregnancy may occur.
When do you ovulate?
In a textbook 28-day menstrual cycle, ovulation occurs on day 14. But of course, not all women have textbook cycles. Ovulation occurs at the end of a long, complex chain of hormonal events that begins during the previous cycle, before your last period even began. This hormonal “build-up” doesn’t happen exactly the same way every cycle, because your body is not a machine. This means that you can’t just assume you’ll ovulate on day 14 (or whatever day is normal for you) because every cycle has the potential to be different from the last.
One of the most important hormones that’s necessary for ovulation to occur is estrogen. In the beginning of your cycle, when you have your period, estrogen levels are low. They rise throughout the first part of your cycle, eventually reaching a threshold where they trigger the release of luteinizing hormone, which tells the ovaries that it’s time to release an egg. Most of the symptoms of ovulation are related to increasing levels of estrogen.
When are you fertile?
You are fertile for the five days leading up to ovulation, and the day of ovulation itself. Your peak fertility occurs during the two days before ovulation. You have a better chance of conceiving on these two days than you do on the day of ovulation itself.
What are the symptoms of ovulation?
1. Increased Resting Pulse Rate
According to recent clinical study data, resting pulse rate (RPR) begins to increase in the days before ovulation1. RPR is lowest during menstruation, and increases by about two beats per minute (BPM) between two and five days before ovulation. After ovulation, RPR continues to rise, reaching a peak in the mid-luteal phase. It drops around the time menstruation starts—or, if you’re pregnant, it remains high.
2. Changes in Basal Body Temperature
Some women notice that basal body temperature (BBT) reaches a nadir (a low point) on the day of ovulation. However, this BBT nadir is not present in the majority of charts and is not a very reliable way to identify ovulation.2
After ovulation, increased progesterone levels cause BBT to increase by about one half of one degree Fahrenheit. This is a much more reliable sign of ovulation than the BBT nadir. However, the rise in BBT can only confirm when ovulation has already occurred, and it is too late to conceive that cycle. Furthermore, while BBT is a good method for confirming that a cycle was ovulatory, it’s not a good method for determining the precise day that ovulation occurred. According to one study, the BBT rise occurs two or more days away from the day of ovulation3
3. Vaginal Discharge (aka Cervical Mucus) Changes
In the days leading up to ovulation, estrogen levels increase, which changes the consistency of your cervical mucus. The closer you get to ovulation, the higher the water content of your mucus. You should notice your cervical mucus getting more slippery and clear as you approach ovulation. The most fertile cervical mucus resembles raw egg whites. After ovulation, high progesterone levels cause cervical mucus to quickly dry up.
Cervical mucus is a sign that your body is gearing up to ovulate, but it doesn’t confirm that ovulation actually happened. Most of the time, when you see fertile cervical mucus it means you will ovulate soon, and when the cervical mucus dries up, it means that you probably already ovulated. But sometimes—especially for women who have PCOS—the body will make an attempt to ovulate but not quite make it over the hump. When this happens, another attempt is usually made a few weeks later.
4. Breast or Nipple Tenderness
Breast and nipple soreness and sensitivity can occur in the days leading up to ovulation as well as the days following ovulation, due to increased levels of hormones.
5. Pelvic Pain
Around 20 percent of women experience pain associated with ovulation, sometimes referred to as mittelschmerz. But this pain does not necessarily occur at the precise moment of ovulation, and shouldn’t be used as a definitive sign of ovulation.
Some women experience a small amount of spotting around the time of ovulation. In the first part of the cycle, levels of estrogen are increasing, which causes the uterine lining to grow. After ovulation, progesterone levels rise, which causes the uterine lining to thicken and mature. Spotting around the time of ovulation may be due to the fact that the uterine lining has grown due to high levels of estrogen, but has not yet thickened since progesterone is not yet at its peak.
7. Increased Sex Drive
You may feel more “in the mood” in the days leading up to ovulation due to high levels of estrogen. However, lots of things can increase your sex drive (hello, porn!) and feeling turned on is by no means a definitive sign that you’re ovulating. By the same token, lots of things can decrease your sex drive, and if you don’t feel an increase in sex drive during your fertile window, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to ovulate.
8. Changes in Cervical Position
Most of the time, the cervix is relatively low in the vagina, and the opening is very small. Around the time you ovulate, the cervix moves higher up and becomes both softer and more open. The change is somewhat subtle, but if you get in the habit of checking your cervix regularly, you will probably be able to tell the difference. To check your cervix, insert a (clean!) finger into your vagina until you feel the little nub at the end of the vaginal canal. That’s your cervix!
9. Swollen Inguinal Lymph Node
This little-known ovulation sign occurs for up to 70 percent of women around ovulation. The inguinal lymph nodes are small glands located on either side of your pelvis. You may experience inguinal lymph swelling on the same side of your body that the egg is released from that cycle. Learn here how to check your inguinal lymph nodes.
- Shilaih, Mohaned; de Clerck, Valérie; Falco, Lisa; Kübler, Florian; Leeners, Brigitte. “Pulse Rate Measurement During Sleep Using Wearable Sensors, and its Correlation with the Menstrual Cycle Phases,” Scientific Reports ↩
- Barron, Mary Lee, and Fehring, Richard; Marquette University. “Basal Body Temperature Assessment: Is It Useful to Couples Seeking Pregnancy?” ↩
- Ecochard, René; Boehringer, Hans; Rabilloid, Muriel; Marret, Henri. “Chronological Aspects of Ultrasonic, Hormonal, and Other Indirect Indices of Ovulation.” ↩