Smear tests, discharge and cramping mid cycle: What’s normal?

You took to Instagram to ask us your most pressing cycle related questions, and we answered. Here we get candid and go into more detail about the top questions we received, from how much discharge is normal and non period related cramping to your first smear test. No intimate health question is too awkward to ask. Arming yourself with knowledge and opening up conversations about your periods empowers us all to make the right health decisions for us.

When should you have your first smear test or vaginal examination?

Smear tests are offered to everyone with a cervix by the NHS from the age of 25. You may receive a letter prompting you to book your first test up to six months before your twenty fifth birthday. If you have symptoms such as random bleeding, bleeding after sex, pain during sex or general pelvic pain, an increase in discharge or lower back pain, it’s important to discuss these with your doctor. If you experience any of these symptoms before the age of 25, your doctor may suggest a smear test right away in order to make a proper diagnosis.

If you’re sexually active, it’s important to have a full STD screening at least every six months. Both smear tests and full STD screenings involve a speculum being inserted into the vagina and swabs being taken of the cervix, and or your vagina walls.The nurse or doctor carrying out the examination will also take a look at your cervix to make sure it looks healthy.

Neither of these examinations should hurt, though they might be uncomfortable. If you are really struggling, ask the nurse or doctor if they can change the size of the speculum they are using. Deep breathing and trying your best not to tense up will make the examination less uncomfortable, as your pelvic muscles need to relax to allow full visibility and access to your cervix.

If you are not sexually active and notice a change in the amount, consistency, colour or smell of your discharge, or experience itching, your GP may still have a look and feel of your pelvic area, as well as taking a look at the opening of the vagina. A blind swab (without using a speculum) may also be taken if your doctor can’t make a diagnosis right away.

If you find any lumps, bumps, sores or rashes around your vulva area, see your GP or local sexual health clinic for an examination as soon as you can.

Is an increase in discharge normal before a period?

Everybody’s discharge pattern will be unique to them, so it’s important to get familiar with yours so you can spot if something suddenly doesn’t seem quite right. Though generally, immediately before ovulation, your discharge is more likely to be clear and runny, or even watery. During ovulation, your discharge will probably have the consistency of raw egg whites.

You are more likely to experience a creamier, whiter discharge during your non fertile periods (before ovulation or just before your period) that might feel gluey or stretchy. It’s common to have ‘dry days’ just after your period finishes where you might not notice any discharge at all.

Experiencing an increase in discharge just before your period might be normal for you. If you are also experiencing itching or notice an unpleasant change in odour, this might signal that you have thrush or bacteria vaginosis (BV).

Thrush usually causes itching around the vulva area and an increase in discharge that resembles cottage cheese, while BV can result in an increase in discharge, a greyish, more watery discharge and foul smelling discharge.

Neither of these common conditions are STDs and they are more likely to occur just before your period when your vaginal pH level rises, making it easier for bad bacteria and yeast to thrive. Douching and using soap to wash your intimate areas can also cause both these infections. Switch to using water only or an unscented emollient or ointment cream such as Diprobase or Hydromol to wash your vulva. Only the area around your vagina should be gently cleansed. The vagina itself is self cleaning and trying to wash inside it will upset your flora balance.

Quit douching altogether, this only washes away all the good bacteria in your vagina, allowing bad bacteria to grow and making infections more likely. Most women will experience thrush and BV at least one in their lifetime, and some of us are more prone than others. It’s easily treatable and isn’t anything to panic about. It’s still important to speak to your doctor about these symptoms so they can rule out anything else.

Is it common to experience cramping mid cycle?

Experiencing dreaded period style cramps when you are not menstruating can often come as a surprise and cause you to worry that something is wrong. Many women experience non period related cramping and this is almost always down to your ovulation phase. It’s common for cramping to occur at this time as your ovaries release an egg and it travels down your fallopian tubes. Most women experience cramping on one side, depending on which fallopian tube the egg is travelling along. Cramping for hours or a few days around ovulation is completely normal, you may even have some light spotting too.

Cramping that isn’t happening during your period or ovulation, or cramping that seems constant isn’t normal and should absolutely be checked out by your GP or a gynaecologist. If you experience severe cramping of any kind, you should also check in with your doctor. Conditions such as Polycystic Ovarian Symptoms (PCOS) and Endometriosis can cause severe or constant cramping, though there are normally other symptoms too. Common STIs can also cause cramping, though they often don’t have any symptoms at all.

Though our periods and period related symptoms can evolve as we get older and become more or less active, if you feel that something is out of the ordinary for your body, it’s always best to speak to your GP.

Read more about smear tests, and cramps.