After a woman conceives, a layer of mucus begins to block her cervix (the opening of the uterus). This gooey substance protects the fetus from bacteria and infection during gestation, says Adeeti Gupta, MD, FACOG, founder of Walk In GYN Care in New York, New York. Most women lose their mucus plug in the ninth month of pregnancy when the cervix begins to soften or dilate. But what if your mucus plug is released weeks before your baby is due? Here’s what you need to know about losing your mucus plug early, and what it says about the health of your pregnancy.
Losing your mucus plug indicates that labor is near, but the first contractions might not come for days or weeks, says board-certified nurse midwife Kristin Mallon of Integrative Obstetrics in Jersey City, New Jersey. Losing your mucus plug after 37 weeks isn’t usually a cause for concern. In fact, many women who have previously given birth will lose their mucus plug around that time.
“Loss of the mucus plug often happens when the cervix has opened and loosened a little bit,” says Mallon. “The body can regenerate the mucus, so you don’t need to worry about infection if you lost it after 37 weeks. You should still report this to your doctor or midwife though.” After the mucus plug is released, you should also watch out for other signs of labor. Head to the hospital if your water breaks, or if contractions are lasting at least 30 seconds and coming every three-five minutes, says Dr. Gupta.
If you lose your mucus plug before 37 weeks of pregnancy, see your doctor right away. It’s likely that a cervical exam, sexual intercourse, or other natural cause triggered the mucus plug to be released early. However, you could be experiencing a pregnancy complication like preterm labor, says Dr. Gupta. Preterm labor could lead to premature delivery, which raises the risk for health problems for the newborn.
When it comes to the mucus plug, “some women don't know what to look out for,” says Mallon. “They could be having normal discharge during pregnancy and mistake it for for an early release of the mucus plug.” In addition, mucus could stem from a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or an STD. So how do you tell the difference?
For starters, the mucus plug is gooey, gelatinous, and yellowish-white in color (sometimes with tinges of pink or brown). Normal pregnancy discharge tends to be thin, mild smelling, and clear or milky white. Discharge from a yeast infection is usually yellow or white, thick, and chunky like cottage cheese. Bacterial vaginosis produces fishy-smelling discharge that’s most noticeable after sex, while other forms of yellow, green, or foul-smelling discharge could signal an STD. See your doctor if your suspect any type of vaginal infection.
Keep in mind that not every woman notices when they lose their mucus plug, because sometimes it’s released gradually over several days. There’s no need to examine your underwear and toilet paper as your due date approaches. And remember: Always see your doctor if you’re unsure about a pregnancy symptom, since it’s better to be safe than sorry!