When you’re trying to get pregnant, knowing the time you are most fertile is very important. Keep reading to find out which signs and symptoms to look out for to know when you’re ovulating and are most fertile.
What is ovulation?
The part of your menstrual cycle that is called ovulation, occurs when a mature egg is released from one of the ovaries and travels down the fallopian tube, where it may become fertilized. Most of the time only one mature egg is released per month.
Ovulation is connected with a surge of hormones and specific enzymes to ensure that the egg remains safe while it is viable to be fertilized. There are also so-called granulose cells that help to prevent miscarriage later on.
When ovulation takes place
Ovulation usually takes place about 14 days before your period starts if you’re healthy and of childbearing age. However, since women’s menstrual cycles on average last between 28 and 32 days, ovulation may take place between days 10 and 19 of the cycle.
If you have an especially short menstrual cycle – as 21 days – or a longer cycle – up to 35 days – you need to subtract 14 from that number of days. Therefore, your ovulation can happen as early as day 7 or as late as day 21 of your cycle.
Ovulation only lasts between 12 and 24 hours and it is only during this time that the egg that has been released by the ovary is viable. This is why it’s very important to know how long your cycle is and, if you’re unsure, to keep a calendar of your cycle for at least 3 months.
Common ovulation symptoms
Knowing what symptoms you should be on the lookout for if you’re trying to get pregnant, is imperative in order to pinpoint when you ovulate.
The most common symptoms of ovulation, are:
- Breast tenderness
- Increase in libido
- Changes in the cervical mucus
- Changes to your basal body temperature
Next, we’ll look at each of these symptoms separately to understand them better.
About 20% of women experience pain of some kind when they ovulate. This pain is called mittelschmerz (a German word literally meaning “middle pain”). Mittelschmerz can feel dull, crampy, or sharp and may be caused by any of the following:
- The ovary being stretched as the egg matures and grows before rupturing the follicle during its released
- Contraction of the fallopian tubes as the egg travels towards the uterus
- Fluid from the follicle that irritates the abdomen
The pain can be pelvic or abdominal in nature and will appear on the side that you’re ovulating on that month. This means that your pain will most likely alternate from one side to the other month to month. The pain can also last anything from a few minutes to a few days.
If you do have need of painkillers to numb the mittelschmerz, you can use mild over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine.
Note: the pain during ovulation is usually mild and not severe and, if you do feel severe pain, you need to seek medical help to ensure that there is nothing wrong.
Because your body is flooded with hormones before and after ovulation, you may find that your breasts become tender or your nipples painful when you ovulate.
Increase in or change in libido
You may also find that you have an increased sex drive during ovulation, which can again be attributed to the large amounts of hormones released during ovulation. It is your body’s way of telling you that you have now entered your monthly “fertile window”.
Showell, however, also cautions that changes in libido can be influenced by any number of things and is not the only thing you should focus on when you need to know when you’re ovulating.
Changes in cervical mucus
What does seem to be a great way of telling when you’re ovulating, is looking at your cervical mucus. The reason for this is that the appearance of the mucus differs in the different stages of the menstrual cycle.
To see the changes in the cervical mucus and check whether it shows if you’re ovulating, insert a clean finger into your vagina and remove some of the discharge. You will then be able to see where you are in your cycle by comparing the mucus to the descriptions below.
Here is a quick guide to the different appearances of cervical mucus during one menstrual cycle:
- After your period ends, you will notice that you have either no or very little discharge.
- Before ovulating, the mucus that you discharge will be thick and have a cloudy or white appearance. When pulled between your fingers, it will break apart.
- When you’re just about to ovulate or are ovulating, you will find that the mucus becomes more as well as clearer, thinner, stretchier and more slippery. It is usually likened to raw egg white.
When this clear discharge is pulled between your fingers, you will find it sticky and stretchy or very wet and slippery. The mucus can – at this stage of your cycle – be pulled into a string a few inches long before breaking.
When the discharged mucus looks like this, it is a good sign that you are in the fertile phase of your cycle. These different characteristics of the mucus in fact makes it easier for the sperm to reach the matured egg.
- After ovulation, you will either become dry again, like just after your period, or you may develop a thicker discharge.
Spotting and/or brown discharge
You don’t have to worry if you have spotting or a brown discharge during your ovulation. This discharge or spotting is usually caused by the rupturing of the follicle that surrounds the maturing egg as the egg grows. The rupturing causes slight bleeding and this blood turns brown as it starts to get older and colors the discharge.
Because the blood can range from red to brown in color when it exits your body along with the mucus, you may find that the discharge can range from red to dark brown.
Read on to see when your ovulation symptoms – like pain and spotting – need the intervention of a health care specialist.
Basal Body Temperature (BBT) changes
This temperature reading is taken as soon as you wake up in the morning – after at least 3 – 5 hours of sleep. It should be measured before sitting up or even talking, and should be measured with a specific BBT thermometer.
Because your BBT changes with the fluctuations in hormone levels (estrogen and progesterone) in your body, your body temperature is about half a degree higher during the latter part of your menstrual cycle, after ovulation has occurred. Your BBT will be at its lowest at ovulation.
You will need to measure your BBT for a few months to be able to pinpoint what the lowest BBT is during any specific month.
When to be concerned about your symptoms
If your pain is severe or long-lasting, you should seek medical help. Severe pain or cramping when you ovulate may have many causes, including:
- Fallopian tube(s) infection
- Fibroids and ovarian cysts
- Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which usually occurs in women taking certain fertility drugs. This may cause severe pelvic pain.
How to treat ovulation pain
Ovulation pain can be treated with OTC pain medication. Studies seem to point towards acetaminophen having the least effect on fertility. However, ibuprofen is also an option.
Another way of treating ovulation pain is to treat it like you would menstrual cramps during your period, using:
- a heat pack or hot water bottle
- some rest
- a warm bath
Persistent spotting may point towards an infection or ectopic pregnancy (when the egg implants itself and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus) if you’ve been sexually active. If your spotting continues, seek out a health care worker that will be able to do the necessary tests for infections and pregnancy.
You should also seek medical help immediately if:
- you have trouble breathing
- are vomiting and/or having diarrhea
- have bleeding that isn’t your period
- have a fever
These symptoms may point to appendicitis or other abdominal problems.
The most important thing about ovulation is knowing your body and knowing what to expect every month as your menstrual cycle goes through ovulation. Not only will you know when you’re fertile, but you will also know how it feels when something goes wrong.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
- “7 Signs of Ovulation” by Colleen de Bellefonds, What to Expect, 24 June 2019.
- “Ovulation Symptoms: 7 Signs of Ovulation” by Brooke Showell, The Bump, May 2020.
- “Ovulation Pain: What Does Mittelschmerz Feel Like?” by Nicole Harris, Parents, July 2020.
- “Self-identification of the Clinical Fertile Window and the Ovulation Period” by Rene Ecochard, et al, PubMed, 2015.
- “Surprising Health Signals Your Body May Be Sending You Right Now” by Sarah Jacoby, et al., Refinery29, 18 October 2018.
- “Is Ovulation Pain Normal?” by Rachel Gurevich, Very Well Family, 20 April 2020.
- “Ectopic Pregnancy” by Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic, July 2020.