Vaginal discharge may change during pregnancy - here's what to expect and when to be concerned

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Vaginal discharge may change during pregnancy - here's what to expect and when to be concerned
Changes in your discharge throughout pregnancy is totally normal, specifically if you notice a white, thick discharge.Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/ Getty Images
  • One of the earliest signs of pregnancy, is an increase in milky, white vaginal discharge.
  • Changes in discharge is normal throughout your pregnancy as your hormone levels fluctuate.
  • You should see a doctor if you have foul-smelling, yellow, green, or frothy discharge.

Your body goes through several changes over the course of pregnancy. One of the things you might notice is increased discharge that gets thicker as your pregnancy progresses.

Among other things, your hormones play a role in the consistency, texture, and smell of the discharge from your vagina, says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB-GYN with her own private practice. The discharge will change for a variety of reasons throughout your pregnancy.

Here's what you need to know about the discharge your body produces during pregnancy and the types of discharge that might be a cause for concern.

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Why you experience more discharge during pregnancy

During pregnancy, your body produces more discharge to protect the baby from infections.

Turns out discharge acts much like tears for your eyes or the saliva in your mouth. Meaning that it cleanses your vagina and traps germs and other infectious agents in your vagina, expelling them before they can reach your uterus.

The reason discharge thickens during pregnancy, specifically, is similar to why your mucus thickens when you have a cold: In order to help get rid of germs in your airways, or vagina in this case.

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What healthy discharge during pregnancy looks like

  • Early stage: Light spotting or brownish discharge for a few days or weeks after you get pregnant.
  • During the pregnancy: Thin, odorless, clear or milky white discharge, which gets thicker and heavier in the second and third trimesters.
  • Final stage: Late in the third trimester, you may see thick, sticky, stringy, clumpy, or jelly-like mucus discharge that may be clear, brown, yellow, green, pink, or tinged with blood.

What is discharge like in the early stages of pregnancy?

The light bleeding or brownish discharge you experience early in pregnancy is called implantation bleeding. And it's a sign that the fertilized egg has attached to your uterus, where it will stay and grow for the duration of the pregnancy.

Implantation bleeding typically starts around the time you would have gotten your period and can last for some days or weeks.

During the rest of your pregnancy, the discharge that your body produces is referred to as "leukorrhea." Healthy discharge is either clear or white, thin, and either odorless or mild-smelling, says Ross.

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As your pregnancy progresses, your discharge typically gets heavier and more noticeable, often resembling a thick, milky white substance, says Ross. In fact, she says that sometimes it's not noticeable until the second or third trimester.

There are several factors that contribute to the production of this white discharge, like fluctuations in your estrogen and progesterone levels, changes in your weight, and increased blood flow to the vagina, says Ross.

What is discharge like towards the end of your pregnancy?

In the last few days of your pregnancy, at around 40 weeks, your discharge may be thick, sticky, and mucousy, says Ross. She says this can happen because your cervix has released its mucus plug.

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The mucus plug is a lump of mucus that forms in your cervix around week seven of your pregnancy, sealing off your uterus and protecting the baby from bacteria and infection.

As the baby's head drops lower and pushes against the cervix, the cervix starts to soften and get wider, which can cause this plug to get pushed into the vagina. You may expel it a few hours or several days before you deliver, so it's not an accurate way to predict when you'll go into labor, says Ross.

The mucus plug may:

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  • Look clear, yellow, green, brown, or tinged with blood.
  • Be thick, sticky, stringy, jelly-like, or clumpy in texture.
  • Come out in parts or in one go. There's a possibility that you may not notice when you pass it since it can sometimes look similar to regular discharge.

You may not notice any change in discharge. You may also see bloody, pink, or brown discharge around this stage, either at the same time as you pass the mucus plug or separately.

This is referred to as "bloody show" and it is a sign that your cervix is starting to dilate; the blood is caused by the rupture of blood vessels in the cervix. While it is a good sign and usually signals that labor is imminent, it may still be some days before you go into labor.

Other signs that could indicate you're going into labor include your water breaking and regular contractions that get stronger and come closer together.

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What's not normal discharge for a pregnancy?

Abnormal discharge can be a symptom of a yeast or bacterial infection, or an indication of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), like chlamydia.

Signs of vaginal infection

  • Strange, foul, or fishy-smelling discharge
  • Yellow, green, or grey discharge
  • Frothy or watery discharge
  • Itching, burning, swelling, or redness in the vulvar area

However, unusual discharge can also indicate an issue with your pregnancy. These are other types of discharge that could suggest a problem:

  • Foul-smelling discharge: A foul-smelling and colored discharge could indicate a brewing infection in the uterus. This can be accompanied by fever, abdominal/uterine tenderness and contractions and should be communicated to your health care provider immediately.
  • Red, pink, or brown discharge: Red discharge or spotting is a sign of active bleeding, whereas brown signifies older blood, and tinges of pink indicate minor bleeding. While it is not unusual to have a little blood in your discharge sometimes - for instance, due to implantation bleeding, the bloody show, or after you have sex - you should still inform your healthcare provider about it, because bleeding could also be a sign that something is wrong. For instance, in the first trimester, it could indicate an ectopic pregnancy, or in the third trimester, it could indicate preterm labor or a problem with your placenta.

Also inform your healthcare provider if this discharge, spotting, or bleeding is accompanied by other symptoms like cramps, pelvic pain, or back pain.

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Insider's takeaway

Depending on your hormones, your body produces different types of discharge during pregnancy. White discharge is usually the norm during pregnancy; however, you may see other types of discharge in the early and late stages.

You can take steps to manage the discharge by wearing breathable cotton underwear, using a panty liner (preferably unscented) , and wearing loose, comfortable clothing. Steer clear of tampons during pregnancy, as they could increase your risk of developing an infection and could potentially lead to pregnancy complications.

You should inform your healthcare provider if your discharge smells foul or fishy, looks frothy, grey, or yellowish, or if you have any itching, redness, or burning, fever or abdominal/uterine pain.

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