What You Need to Know About a Mucus Plug
February 9, 2021
There’s a lot of new terminology to absorb when you’re pregnant. You may have heard some of the language in passing or you’re hearing it for the first time after that positive pregnancy test. The term “mucus plug” is probably one of them. Spoiler: You’ll hear that term again as you get close to your due date—your OB may even ask if you’ve lost yours in the final weeks before delivery. But before that happens, it’s good to have a basic understanding of what a mucus plug is and what it does.
The mucus plug is, much like you’d expect, a thick plug of mucus and cells from the cervix that covers the opening of the uterus during pregnancy, says Charles Ascher-Walsh, MD, Director of the Division of Gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Your mucus plug starts to form when you become pregnant and the glands in your cervix secrete mucus, he says, but it doesn’t reach its full size until you’re about 12 weeks along. It usually stays in place throughout your pregnancy until your cervix begins to dilate. A mucus plug plays an important role preventing bacteria from entering the uterus during pregnancy, says Maureen Whelihan, MD, an ob-gyn at the Center for Sexual Health & Education in Greenacres, Florida.
A mucus plug is distinctly different from “regular” discharge—it’s thicker and there’s more of it, says Michael Cackovic, MD, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Normal vaginal discharge varies with the change in hormone levels during your regular cycle, but hormone levels during pregnancy are different and more constant, which creates a different type of mucus that turns into the mucus plug. Additionally, while typical vaginal discharge helps to keep vaginal tissues healthy and lubricated and protect against both bacterial infections and tissue irritation, the mucus plug is intended purely to block the cervix and protect the uterus and growing fetus from bacteria.
Are you wondering what your mucus plug will look like when it comes out? Well, as you can imagine, it’s mucus-y! It’s also thick and may be slightly bloody, Cackovic says. “A mucus plug color is usually white, yellowish, beige or brown, or any variant thereof,” he adds. “It can have a red or pink tinge associated with blood.” You may also hear the loss of your mucus plug referred to as the “bloody show” for this reason. Losing a mucus plug can be a bit startling if it comes out all at once, but knowing what to expect when it comes to mucus plug discharge can help. Don’t be alarmed at the color or texture of your mucus plug discharge—Whelihan likens it to a “thick ball of snot.” It’s likely to make its appearance when you use the bathroom—so toward the end of your pregnancy, be on the lookout.
A mucus plug is designed to “plug” your cervix, so it’s approximately four centimeters long. It has the volume of about two tablespoons (in case you’re really curious).
Doctors and nurses usually ask whether a woman has lost her mucus plug when she’s in the later stages of her pregnancy—and there’s a reason for this. Losing a mucus plug is usually a sign that your body is preparing to go into labor (though a lost mucus plug isn’t a guarantee). You might also hear a health care provider talk about mucus plug discharge. What does it mean for your mucus plug to “discharge?” In this case, it’s just another way of saying that the mucus plug has moved from the cervix into the vagina.
When do you lose your mucus plug?
The timing of each person’s mucus plug discharge is different, meaning there’s no precise timing. Typically, you lose your mucus plug sometime after 37 weeks. It’s possible to lose your mucus plug earlier, but that should prompt a call to your doctor. “Early loss may indicate preterm changes in the cervix and potential risk for preterm labor,” Whelihan says. “Also, loss of a mucus plug potentially exposes the pregnancy to infection.” If you think you lost your mucus plug early or aren’t sure, talk to your doctor. In fact, says Cackovic, “any increase in vaginal discharge [during pregnancy] should prompt a discussion and possible evaluation by an OB-GYN.”
Is it okay if your mucus plug discharges early?
If your mucus plug discharges before your 36th week of pregnancy, or you notice bloody discharge during that time, contact your health care provider and let them know. It may be just fine, but it’s worth consulting with your doctor. If you’re experiencing vaginal discharge and bleeding that’s more like a period, contact your health care provider immediately. Losing a mucus plug after 37 weeks, however, is perfectly normal! Just the same, it’s a good idea to let your provider know when you lose it so that they are aware.
What does it mean when your mucus plug falls out?
Losing your mucus plug “generally implies a change in the cervical opening size, either via dilation (widening) or effacement (softening and becoming thinner),” Whelihan says. This occurs because your hormones change at the end of your pregnancy—which is why losing your mucus plug often means labor is starting or your body is preparing for labor. That naturally prompts the question, “Can you dilate without losing your mucus plug?” The answer is no. “If the cervix dilates, the plug will always fall out,” Ascher-Walsh says.
How long after losing your mucus plug will labor start?
Unfortunately, losing your mucus plug isn’t a guarantee labor will start immediately after. So how long after you lose your mucus plug will you go into labor? That depends. “It could be hours, days or weeks” until a woman goes into labor after losing her plug, Cackovic says. “It’s not the reliable sign that some make it out to be.” Though losing your mucus plug is typically a sign that labor is on its way, there’s not a prescribed time period for when it will actually begin.
How do I know if I lost my mucus plug?
While some women will spot the plug as soon as it comes out, it’s quite possible you might not realize you’ve lost your mucus plug at all. “Many women will never even pay attention to it,” Whelihan says.
Don’t stress if you’re getting close to your due date and you haven’t seen a mucus plug. “The loss of it has no real importance other than serving as a sign that labor may be soon,” Ascher-Walsh says.
Will you always lose your mucus plug?
As long as your cervix dilates, you will lose your mucus plug. However, every mucus plug is different, just like every person is different. You may not always realize it has come out. Sometimes women lose their mucus plug more gradually, rather than in one or several clumps. You may just notice an increase in discharge rather than a dramatic mucus plug moment.
How to make your mucus plug come out
If you’re past your due date, it’s understandable to want to do what you can to get labor going. It’s also natural to assume that making your mucus plug come out will speed up the process. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While there are plenty of old wives’ tales about this, none have been proven, Ascher-Walsh says.
So, if you’re wondering, “Should you pull out your mucus plug?”, the answer is a hard no. Your mucus plug is there for a reason—to protect you and baby—and it will come out when it’s time. Your doctor will have other ways to speed up the process, such as using Pitocin, if it becomes necessary. Otherwise, try to relax and let nature take its course. Besides, it’s possible you already lost your mucus plug and just didn’t realize it.
Updated February 2021