Anyone with a vagina knows there are times when it is the gateway to some pretty interesting things. First, there’s the normal period that every health teacher talks about from the 5th grade on. But what about that odd white discharge before your period? What is that all about? Oddly enough, learning the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” vaginal discharge can help you know whether you should be worried or not. Consider this an extension of 5th grade health.
What is Vaginal Discharge?
The short answer is: cervical fluid. At the top of your vagina sits your cervix. As you approach ovulation, your estrogen levels surge causing your cervix to create “fertile quality cervical mucus”. It can also be called Egg White Cervical Mucus since it is clear, stretchy, and similar to the consistency of egg whites.
Cervical mucus preserves the pH level inside the vagina to protect against fungus and infection. It actually removes dead cells from both the cervix and vagina, allowing the area to remain healthy without any additional hygiene. In fact, douching, using feminine washes, or taking bubble baths actually threaten the pH level of the vagina and make these uncomfortable and dangerous conditions more likely. Think of your vagina like a self-cleaning oven. It does all of the work for you to stay clean and infection free without you having to do any of the work.
Odorless, colorless mucus resembling raw egg whites serves a very important role in conception. Not only does it provide lubrication to the vagina, making sex more comfortable, it also nourishes and protects the sperm as they take the long road home to meet the egg. Since your vagina is slightly acidic, it is therefore naturally hostile to sperm. Egg white cervical mucus is alkaline providing a safe zone for the sperm against an environment that wants to kill them. Fertile cervical fluid also provides nutrition for the sperm (you have to eat on a journey that long) and has a structure that gives sperm a way to reach the egg with the least amount of effort. Under a microscope, infertile mucus looks more like jagged crystals waiting to tear the sperm to shreds, whereas fertile mucus looks more like smooth glass that buffers the sperm along the way.
Stages of Cervical Fluid
You should keep in mind that the inside of your vagina is a mucus membrane which is always moist. Think of it like the inside of your mouth. If you were to touch the inside of your cheek it will be wet. Same thing goes with your vagina. The level of moisture inside of your vagina is considered the baseline. Cervical fluid is measured above that baseline level of moisture.
Like everything in the female reproductive system, the production of this mucus is dictated by your hormone levels – primarily estrogen. Your body’s production of cervical fluid largely tracks the fluctuations of estrogen during the course of your cycle. As your estrogen levels increase in the lead up to ovulation, this estrogen will stimulate the cervix to produce more fertile mucus to allow you to conceive.
At the start of your cycle your cervical fluid tends to start out on the drier end of the spectrum, and it increases in water content as a woman approaches ovulation. Generally, the higher the water content, the more fertile your cervical fluid. However, if your estrogen levels are too high, the cervical fluid will become more watery and won’t hold together at all.
Cervical fluid will follow a pattern similar to the one described above, assuming a 28 day cycle. Day 1 being the 1st day of period:
- Day 1-5: Menstrual Bleeding. Cervical fluid may or may not be present.
- Day 6-7 (8-7 days before ovulation): Little or no mucus. Since your estrogen levels are low, there is almost no discharge at this point. Some women report being “dry” during these days. This is where lubricants during sex are your friend.
- Day 8-9 (5-6 days before ovulation): Sticky, thick mucus. Around this time, your cervix will start producing a sticky cervical fluid. It might look more like kindergarten paste than a fluid. This means that the period of fertility has begun. Since sperm can survive for up to five days in fertile cervical fluid, some may be able to survive this infertile cervical fluid long enough to ride the fertile fluid wave.
- Day 10-11 (3-4 days before ovulation): Less thick, but still creamy mucus. This cervical fluid is still considered infertile because it restricts sperm movement. It feels a lot like lotion when you rub it between your fingers.
- Day 13-15 (1-2 days before and after ovulation): Egg White Cervical Mucus. The mucus is thin, elastic, slippery, stretchy, and/or clear. It’s go time. This is the best time to have sex if you want to get pregnant. However, sometimes the water content of cervical mucus is so high it doesn’t hold its shape and is only detected by a wet sensation in your vagina. This is still fertile cervical mucus, just not as fertile and may be a sign you are estrogen dominant.
- Day 16-21 (2+ days after ovulation): Sticky cervical mucus. Back to the same thick and chunky texture of day 8-9.
- Day 22-28: Dry mucus. By this point your estrogen levels have peaked and are starting to drop and progesterone has taken over the last parts of your menstrual cycle.
Does Thick White Discharge Before My Period Mean I Have An Infection?
You can see from the stages of cervical fluid that the texture, amount and appearance of the discharge changes as your hormones fluctuate during your cycle. Any white discharge before your period is mainly from the uterus and cervix, and is not the beginning of an infection. In fact, white discharge, or leukorrhea, is a common premenstrual symptom that affects many women. In fact, nearly 1 in 8 women notice a distinct change in their cervical mucus just before ovulation and many notice a secondary change just before their period.
I’m Having White Discharge Instead of My Period. What’s Does That Mean?
Hormones are a funny thing. Every once in a while, for a variety of reasons, you may miss a period completely. The first and most obvious reason is, you’re pregnant. Congratulations! Contact your doctor for follow up. While white discharge is pronounced at the most fertile times in your menstrual cycle, it is also produced as your pregnancy progresses to protect the cervix and vagina during labour and delivery.
However, if you are pregnant, all of the hormonal changes in your body can cause a pH imbalance in the vagina resulting in infections that accompany a fishy smelling discharge, itching, and swelling. But more importantly, if you have had unprotected sex, it is important to verify pregnancy before beginning treatments for any other medical conditions.
There are also a few non-pregnancy reasons why you might have white discharge instead of a period. New dieting habits, travelling, stress, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis can all be blamed for a missed period. If your white discharge doesn’t have an unpleasant odour, and isn’t accompanied by itching or swelling, there is no cause for alarm.
When is White Discharge Abnormal?
The main difference between normal and abnormal discharge is in texture, colour, and smell. When there is an infection of the cervix or vagina or an abnormal pregnancy, the discharge may look more like pus, get heavier than normal, or have a fishy smell. Contact a doctor immediately if your white discharge has any of these characteristics or if you:
- Have a fever.
- Have vaginal or vulvar itching.
- Have abdominal pain or cramps.
These symptoms may be indicators you have one of the following conditions.
- Yeast Infection – Yeast infections are common in warm, moist areas of the body and are not sexually transmitted. If you are taking birth control pills, have recently taken antibiotics, or have had major changes in your diet, you may be more prone to developing a yeast infection. Since changes in the immune system are what cause yeast imbalances in the body, stress, pregnancy, and illness may leave you more susceptible to them. If you are experiencing a thick, white discharge resembling cottage cheese, you may have a yeast infection. Contact your doctor immediately for diagnosis and a course of treatment which may include suppositories or creams.
- Bacterial Vaginosis – Bacterial vaginosis is the most common type of vaginal infection, but its cause remains a mystery. If you have a thin white, gray, or yellowish discharge that has a fish-like odor, consult your doctor immediately. Not only does Bacterial vaginosis increase the risk of HIV in people having unprotected sex with multiple partners, complications may arise if you are pregnant with bacterial vaginosis. However, bacterial vaginosis is easily treatable with oral antibiotics. Consult with your doctor if you suspect you have Bacterial Vaginosis.
- Gonorrhea – Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease contracted by having unprotected sex with an infected partner. Your discharge is likely to be yellow and cloudy. Other symptoms include bleeding between periods and urinary incontinence. If left untreated, the infection could spread to other partners, but more importantly it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease which has been shown to lead to cancer. The course of treatment for gonorrhea is antibiotics prescribed by your physician.
- Trichomoniasis – Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted disease that affects an estimated 7.4 million people every year. Men generally don’t have symptoms and don’t know they have it until their female partners need treatment. Symptoms may include a yellow, frothy discharge with a strong odor, itching, and painful urination and intercourse. If left untreated in pregnant women, trichomoniasis can cause premature labor. If left untreated in a non-pregnant woman, it can increase the risk of contracting HIV if you are exposed to it. Trichomoniasis is treated with antibiotics prescribed by your physician.
When Should I Be Worried About White Discharge?
If you are not trying to conceive, the only cause for concern is when your white discharge changes color or consistency or if it develops an “off” odor. These may all be signs of infection and warrant follow up with your doctor.
If you are trying to conceive, you may find that you don’t produce very much egg white cervical mucus around the time of ovulation. Or, you might notice that you are producing “hostile” cervical mucus, meaning it is sticky and thick instead of stretchy and thin. Both can hinder your efforts in trying to conceive because both make it difficult for sperm to swim safely and efficiently to meet the egg for fertilization. If you are not producing cervical mucus just before ovulation, or if it is not fertile quality, talk to your doctor about ways to improve your cervical mucus’s quantity and quality. In the meantime, remember that mucus is mostly made of water. It is essential to stay properly hydrated so drink plenty of water and try to avoid caffeine as much as possible. Also, try using a sperm-friendly lubricant that has the pH and consistency similar to egg white cervical mucus. These products actually work a lot like egg white cervical mucus to give sperm nourishment and safe passage as much as possible and may help you to conceive if your cervical mucus is not fertile quality.
If you have been tracking your cervical mucus and you notice anything out of the ordinary, it is always better to follow up with your doctor for treatment and piece of mind.
See? That wasn’t so hard, was it? If you are having white discharge before your period, chances are it is completely normal. One way do find out is to begin taking notes about any changes to the white discharge. As you become more familiar with your body, you may even notice that your cervical mucus changes at different times in your menstrual cycle. The only cause for concern happens when that thick white discharge becomes yellow, green, or tinged with blood or if it develops an odd texture or smell. Now that you know the rest of the story, share what you have learned with a friend. Their fifth grade health class likely didn’t cover it either and you’d hate to be the only one with the rest of the story.