You probably expected the exhaustion, sore breasts, and nausea. Cravings and food aversions are other pregnancy symptoms that get a lot of attention. But vaginal discharge? Mucus plugs? Those are things few people tend to take note of.
Well buckle up, you’re about to learn all about the drips, drops, and globs you might experience over the next 9 months.
And if you’re concerned you may have lost your mucus plug, here’s how to identify it — and when you should call your doctor.
Your mucus plug is a thick collection of discharge that blocks the opening of your cervix during pregnancy. While it may sound sort of gross, the mucus plug is actually made up of good stuff — antimicrobial proteins and peptides. What this means is that your plug helps prevent bacteria from getting into the uterus and causing infection.
You may have noticed an uptick in cervical mucus early on in your pregnancy. Hormones — estrogen and progesterone — go to work building the plug as early as conception.
As your body prepares for labor and delivery, your plug may fall out. This usually happens sometime late in the third trimester. It may fall out just days or hours before labor begins. Alternatively, it may come out weeks before you meet your baby. And sometimes, the plug falls out later, even during labor itself.
Changes to the cervix, including dilation or effacement, are what usually dislodges the plug. These changes tend to happen in pregnancy after week 37. Of course, they can happen sooner if you go into labor early or have other issues with your cervix.
Related: Causes of preterm labor
The vaginal discharge you may see in early pregnancy and otherwise throughout is typically clear or white. The consistency may be thin and sticky. Hormonal changes cause the discharge as your body adjusts to pregnancy. The amount of it may vary by the day or week as your hormones fluctuate.
When you lose your plug, you may notice an increase in vaginal discharge, which may range in color from clear to yellow/green to pink — and even be streaked with new or old (brown) blood. The texture of your plug may be stiffer and more gelatinous than other discharge you’ve had throughout your pregnancy. In fact, it may resemble the mucus you’re used to seeing in your tissue when you blow your nose.
Your plug may also come out in a form that’s more liquidy, as its characteristics can vary from one pregnancy to another. You may not know it until you see it, but if you lose the plug all at once, it might be between 4 and 5 centimeters long.
Whatever discharge you encounter, it shouldn’t smell foul. If you see discharge that is green or yellow and smells unpleasant, you may have an infection. Other warning signs include itchiness or soreness in and around your vagina and pain when you urinate.
You can lose a piece or part of your mucus plug at any time during your pregnancy, but it may regenerate. So, before getting too worried that yours has dislodged, consider that what you’re seeing may be other discharge.
While the mucus plug is most commonly lost late in the third trimester as you approach labor, you can lose it sooner. Any situation that makes the cervix dilate, such as cervical incompetence or preterm labor, may be the cause. Issues like cervical incompetence don’t usually cause symptoms until week 14 to 20, at which point, you may also experience things like pelvic pressure, cramping, and increased discharge.
Be sure to mention any possible loss of mucus plug or other concerns to your doctor. This is especially important if you haven’t reached week 37 of your pregnancy, have other signs of preterm labor — such as frequent contractions or pain in your back or abdomen — or believe your water has broken.
Try your best to note the consistency, color, volume, and other important details or symptoms to help with identification. Your healthcare provider may check your cervix and its length to see if you’re dilating early. In cases of early dilation, your doctor may prescribe bed rest or a procedure like a cerclage to stitch the cervix shut and allow the mucus plug to regenerate and stay in place.
Related: Treatments for preterm labor
Losing your mucus plug isn’t specifically a sign of miscarriage. That said, losing your mucus plug before week 37 in your pregnancy may mean that you’re dilating or otherwise going into labor early.
Remember: Vaginal discharge is common in pregnancy. You may even experience spotting and bleeding and go on to have a healthy pregnancy. Still, if you see blood in your discharge or have bleeding that’s as heavy or heavier than your normal menstrual period, contact your doctor as soon as possible. This may be a sign of miscarriage.
Other signs of miscarriage include cramping or pain in your abdomen or lower back. Tissue or fluid coming out of your vagina is another symptom to be on the lookout for. If you do see tissue, try collecting it in a clean container so your doctor can have it analyzed.
The truth is, you’re going to see various types of discharge throughout your pregnancy. Sometimes, it’ll just be normal pregnancy discharge. As you near delivery, it may indicate more.
Your doctor or midwife has likely heard any and all questions related to cervical mucus, mucus plugs, and other weird pregnancy quirks. So don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider with concerns or questions, even if you think they may seem silly. It’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re worried or have symptoms of preterm labor.
And if you’re close to your due date and think you may have lost your plug — hang in there. Labor could be hours or days away. Or not. Whatever the case, you’ll meet your little one soon and be able to put these sticky matters behind you.