What is a Mucus Plug? Losing Your Mucus Plug in Labor
Towards the end of pregnancy, many are eager for any early signs of labor. The loss of the mucus plug is thought to be a sign that labor is imminent.
Learn about the purpose of the mucus plug, what it means to lose the mucus plug, and if it can predict when labor will start.
What is the mucus plug?
“The mucus plug is a mucus seal that acts as a barrier between the vaginal environment which contains bacteria and the sterile environment inside the uterus where the pregnancy sac and fetus reside,” explains Dr. Mitchell Kramer, Chairman Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Long Island’s Huntington Hospital, explains that
The mucus plug is formed in early pregnancy as cervical mucus collects in the cervical canal. This collection of mucus becomes a protective plug/barrier between the baby and the vagina and remains an important protection until labor begins.
What does the mucus plug look like?
Since the mucus plug is located in the cervix, movement or disruption of a soft/ripe cervix may dislodge the mucus plug. This includes a cervical exam, a provider sweeping your membranes, or sexual intercourse. The mucus plug may be clear, grayish, or maybe pink/blood tinged and is described as stringy or jelly-like.
What is the purpose of the mucus plug?
The mucus plug protects the developing fetus from harmful bacteria and other pathogens that could potentially enter the uterus before giving birth. The mucus plug also plays a role in maintaining a healthy pregnancy by keeping the cervix closed and helping to prevent premature labor.
What does it mean to “lose your mucus plug?”
With cervical changes (dilation and effacement), the mucus plug will come out. This is most likely to happen during late pregnancy. According to Dr. Kramer, “This can happen before labor or during labor. However, if a woman passes the mucus plug, it does not necessarily mean she’s in early labor.”
Since there is generally an increase in vaginal discharge near the end of pregnancy, some may not notice the passing of the mucus plug, especially if it does not all come out at once. Additionally, the mucus plug is not always expelled before labor, some may begin actively laboring before they lose their mucus plug.
Is the mucus plug the same as “bloody show” or “water breaking”?
The mucus plug is often confused with the part of labor called the “bloody show,” but they are not the same thing. Bloody show is a vaginal discharge that is often thicker and contains blood from the small blood vessels that break in your cervix as your cervix dilates.
While the mucus plug may have traces of blood in it from the cervix, the mucus plug itself is most often clear/white in color.
When your water breaks it is also typically clear, or perhaps blood-tinged. However, it is not the same as the mucus plug.
Mucus plug discharge is gelatinous, while the amniotic fluid is very thin and watery. If you are unsure whether you lost your mucus plug or if your water broke, consider using a panty-liner to monitor the color and consistency, and notify your healthcare provider.
Can you remove your mucus plug yourself?
You should not attempt to remove the mucus plug since it is a barrier of protection for the fetus, and removing it will not induce labor. Do not attempt to induce labor without the guidance of a healthcare provider, and always consult with your OB-GYN about any complications during your pregnancy.
How long after losing your mucus plug does labor start?
If you lose your mucus plug closer to your estimated due date, generally after 37 weeks of pregnancy, it is more likely that your cervix will continue to soften and ripen, and labor will begin. As the cervix begins to dilate and efface during labor, the mucus plug is usually expelled, either as a single blob or in smaller pieces.
However, there is no set time between when you lose your mucus plug, and when labor begins. It could be hours, days, or weeks.
But as your approach the full term of your pregnancy, you should feel your body starting to prepare to go into labor. Continue to monitor for signs of labor as you approach your due date.
Losing Your Mucus Plug Early: Risks and Complications
Since cervical ripening and cervical change may begin prior to 37 weeks, some may lose their mucus plug earlier in their pregnancy.
Losing the mucus plug early is not usually a cause for alarm, since it does not mean that birth will begin. In fact, if you lose your mucus plug in early pregnancy, your body can make a new one to keep protecting the fetus.
However, it is encouraged to notify your healthcare provider/OB-GYN if you lose your mucus plug early. In some cases, losing your mucus plug early could indicate placental abruption. Placental abruption occurs when the placenta separates from the uterus wall before birth, and it is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition for both mother and baby.
If the loss of the mucus plug is accompanied by cramping and/or bleeding, or if you are known to have placenta previa. Your provider will review signs and symptoms of labor, and discuss any considerations specific to your care.
Can You Lose Your Mucus Plug Postpartum?
Yes, it is possible to lose your mucus plug after giving birth.
After giving birth, the cervix begins to heal and return to its normal, pre-pregnancy state. Throughout the first 2 to 8 weeks of the postpartum healing process, many people will notice some mucus discharge.
This shedding of mucus is generally considered normal and safe, but if you notice any heavy bleeding postpartum or your discharge has a bad odor it is important to contact your healthcare provider as this could indicate an infection.
American Pregnancy Association. (2023). Mucus plug-what is it & what does it look like? American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved 7 May 2023, from https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/labor-and-birth/mucus-plug/
Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Mucus Plug. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved 7 May 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21606-mucus-plug#:~:text=A%20mucus%20plug%20is%20a,common%20symptom%20in%20late%20pregnancy.
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