Most women don’t pay much attention to vaginal discharge, except to get annoyed that it makes their underwear dirty. But your discharge plays an important role in increasing your chances of getting pregnant. Vaginal discharge changes changes throughout your menstrual cycle, and if you ignore these changes, you’re missing out on important information that can help you get pregnant faster.
This post explains everything you need to know about the special kind of vaginal discharge called cervical mucus. It explains what cervical mucus is, what role it plays in conception, how to track your cervical mucus for optimal intercourse timing, and how to know whether you have the right kind of cervical mucus.
What is vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is an umbrella term for all the gunk that comes out of your vagina. This discharge plays an important role in keeping the vagina clean, preventing infection, flushing away old cells, and achieving pregnancy.
Cervical mucus is a type of vaginal discharge that is appears regularly throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle. Cervical mucus goes through a series of predictable changes during the cycle. It’s not the same thing as arousal fluid, which is produced, as the name suggests, when a woman is aroused. Arousal fluid can make sexual intercourse more comfortable and enjoyable, but it does not have the same fertility enhancing properties as cervical mucus.
Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and infections can also affect the consistency, color, and odor of vaginal discharge. This post, however, will focus on normal variations in cervical mucus throughout the menstrual cycle.
Why is cervical mucus important for conception?
Throughout most of the menstrual cycle, the vagina is acidic and hostile to sperm. But when the right kind of cervical mucus is present, it nourishes sperm cells and helps them survive inside the reproductive tract for longer. Conveniently, the “right” kind of cervical mucus shows up in the days leading up to ovulation—just in time to help sperm travel to meet your egg!
How does the female body ensure that fertile cervical mucus shows up at the right time? The hormone estrogen. In order for ovulation to occur, estrogen needs to rise. Rising levels of estrogen are also directly responsible for transforming cervical mucus into the fertile, sperm-friendly variety.
How does cervical mucus change throughout the cycle?
After your period ends, most women have very little cervical mucus. But as you get closer to ovulation, the quantity and quality of cervical mucus changes. Most women notice a pattern of cervical mucus going from thick/opaque/tacky, to creamy, to slippery/clear/stretchy, or even watery. These changes in cervical mucus consistency are due to increased water content. As you get closer to ovulation, the water content of your cervical mucus rises. In fact, the most fertile cervical mucus just before ovulation is 96 percent water!
As you notice these changes in the consistency of your cervical mucus, another change is occurring that you may not be aware of: the acidity of your cervical mucus is decreasing as you get closer to ovulation. Throughout most of your cycle, your cervical mucus is fairly acidic and hostile toward sperm. But in the days leading up to ovulation, the acidity of cervical mucus decreases.
High water content and low acidity together make for a friendly environment for sperm survival.
The hormone estrogen is responsible for these changes. Estrogen levels rise in preparation for ovulation, causing cervical mucus to increase in water content and decrease in acidity. This is the most friendly environment for sperm survival.
How can cervical mucus help you get pregnant faster?
Cervical mucus is your body’s way of warning you that ovulation is coming soon. Making sure you have sex in the days leading up to ovulation is one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting pregnant (to see the best days of your cycle to conceive, ranked in order, check out our fertility calendar).
Many women wait for their LH surge (identified by urine LH tests) to have sex, but this strategy can cause you to start having sex too late in your cycle, when your most fertile days are already behind you. Since cervical mucus typically starts to change several days before you would get a positive ovulation test, it’s a great indicator for when you’re entering your fertile window. A good rule of thumb: if you see fertile cervical mucus, have sex—even if you haven’t gotten a positive ovulation test yet.
How can you check your cervical mucus?
You can check your cervical mucus externally—by looking in your underwear or on the toilet paper after you wipe—or internally—by inserting a finger inside your vagina and swiping it over your cervix.
Some women produce copious quantities of cervical mucus that is easy to observe in the underwear or on toilet paper. Other women produce less cervical mucus, and it may be difficult to examine without checking internally. To check internally, insert two (clean!) fingers into the vagina until you hit a little nose-like nub. This is your cervix. To “harvest” your mucus, stroke alongside the cervix with two fingers.
However you collect your cervical mucus, pick it up in your fingers and examine it; the most fertile cervical mucus is clear and slippery, and can usually be stretched wide between two fingers without breaking (or it may be so watery that it doesn’t stretch between your fingers).
How do you know if you make enough cervical mucus?
Some women worry that if they don’t often see cervical mucus in their underwear and need to check internally, it means they don’t make enough cervical mucus. However, the amount of cervical mucus you observe is not a good way to judge whether you are producing enough to get pregnant.
The cervical mucus that really matters for conception is what is present inside the cervix. And the amount of mucus you observe in your underwear or when you check internally is not necessarily a good indicator of what is happening inside your cervix. Seeing a lot of cervical mucus in your underwear can make it easier to track your cervical mucus pattern, but it doesn’t mean you are more fertile than someone who needs to check her mucus internally.
Not having sufficient cervical mucus would interfere with conception, because fertile cervical mucus changes the viscosity and pH of the cervix to support sperm survival and maturation, but your cervical mucus situation may be totally normal even if you don’t see a lot further down in the system.
How can I increase my cervical mucus?
First of all, take your worry with a grain of salt. Just because you don’t see tons of cervical mucus does not mean you aren’t making enough. If you are producing enough estrogen to get yourself to ovulate, chances are there is cervical mucus in your cervix, even if you don’t see it.
However, if you are still dead set on trying to increase your cervical mucus, there are a few methods you can try. Below is a breakdown of which of these methods are supported by evidence, and which ones are snake oil. It’s also important to note that while these methods may have an impact on the amount of cervical mucus you produce, they will not affect the quality of your cervical mucus. And there is no clear evidence that any of these methods actually increases conception rates.
- Staying hydrated. Cervical mucus is mostly water, and as cervical mucus becomes more highly fertile, water content increases. Staying hydrated can help increase the quantity of your cervical mucus, because more water secreted along with the mucin proteins leads to looser mucus that better facilitates sperm travel.
- Mucinex: Taking a decongestant such as Mucinex, where the only active ingredient is guaifenesin, can help improve the quality of cervical mucus1. It works for basically the same reason that staying hydrated works: Mucinex increases water secretion from mucus-secreting tissues in the cervix, making mucus looser. (Make sure you get a decongestant where the ONLY active ingredient is guaifenesin. If it contains antihistamines it may have the opposite effect.)
- Grapefruit juice: Grapefruit slows down your body’s breakdown of estrogen, allowing excess estrogen to build up in the body. Does this actually help increase your cervical mucus? Theoretically, it should, but there aren’t any studies examining the impact of grapefruit juice consumption on cervical mucus. If you enjoy the pleasantly bitter taste of grapefruit juice, there’s no harm in trying—but if you take any medications, make sure to check whether grapefruit juice can impact their efficacy.
- Preseed or other fertility friendly lubricant: Many women mistakenly believe that fertility friendly lubricants like Preseed can act as a replacement for insufficient cervical mucus. There is no evidence for this. Fertility friendly lubricants do not increase your chances of getting pregnant. Most commonly available lubes can have a harmful effect on sperm, and the benefit of lubricants that are labeled as fertility friendly is that they won’t harm sperm. But they also don’t do anything to help, either. (Read about more getting pregnant mistakes and misconceptions.)
- Improvement of cervical factor with guaifenesin. Jerome H. Check, M.D., Harriet G. Adelson, B.S., Chung-Hsiu Wu, M.D. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Division of Gynecologic Endocrinology, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ↩