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Most sex-ed programs cover the basics of conception: an egg and a sperm meet, starting a long and complicated process that can eventually lead to a baby. But while ovulation is usually touched on in sex ed, it’s not typically covered in depth.
Fast forward to years later — when you actually care about ovulation — and you’re scrambling to figure out what’s really happening with your body. Whether you are trying to conceive, want to avoid that altogether, or are just curious, it’s important to understand ovulation and how it plays a role in fertility. Here’s the deal.
What Is Ovulation?
Let’s cover the basics first. Ovulation is what happens when one of your ovaries, the pair of female glands inside your pelvis, release an egg, explains the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Under typical circumstances, ovulation happens every month as part of the menstrual cycle, says Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies. If you ovulate and the egg is fertilized, it can result in a pregnancy. If you ovulate and the egg isn’t fertilized, you will typically have a period afterward, Dr. Greves explains.
When Does Ovulation Happen?
Every person is different, and it’s hard to say when ovulation will happen for everyone. “Women typically ovulate 14 days before the next cycle starts,” says Loriana Soma, MD, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “However, this can vary slightly — from 12 to 16 days.”
An average menstrual cycle is 28 days, Dr. Soma points out. In that situation, ovulation would usually be on day 14. “If the cycle is longer, ovulation is later,” she says. “For example, in a 32-day cycle, ovulation would be around day 18.”
Keep in mind that the first day of your period is considered day one of the menstrual cycle, says Alexa Sassin, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. “The egg remains ‘fresh’ or viable for fertilization for approximately 12 to 24 hours after ovulation,” Dr. Sassin says.
Signs and Symptoms of Ovulation
These tend to vary from person to person. “For some individuals, there are no apparent signs of ovulation,” says reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist Asima Ahmad, MD, M.P.H., chief medical officer and cofounder of Carrot Fertility. But others may notice the following signs, she says:
- Breast tenderness
- Increase in cervical mucus
- Change in the appearance of cervical mucus (to a consistency that looks like egg whites)
- Pain or cramping (known as mittelschmerz)
What Does Ovulation Mean For Getting Pregnant?
Ovulation is an important first step in getting pregnant. If you don’t ovulate, you can’t conceive without reproductive assistance, Dr. Greves points out.
The process of getting pregnant without reproductive assistance happens this way, per ACOG:
- An egg is released during ovulation.
- The egg moves into one of the fallopian tubes. If you have unprotected sex, the egg and sperm may meet in the fallopian tube.
- The egg and sperm join.
- The fertilized egg then moves down the fallopian tube into the uterus. There, the egg attaches to the uterine wall to grow during pregnancy.
Knowing the timing of ovulation can be important in order to optimally fertilize the egg with sperm, Dr. Sassin says. “That is why ovulation is considered the ‘fertile window’ of the menstrual cycle.”
How to Track Your Ovulation
There are many different ways to track your ovulation, including blood tests and an ultrasound conducted by your doctor. However, you can also do the following yourself to track your ovulation at home:
- Do a little math. For someone who has predictable cycles and menstruates on the same day every month, they “could start by counting backwards 14 days from the start of their period,” Dr. Ahmad says. If you’re someone who has 31-day cycles, this may occur on day 17, she says. “In most cases, this simple method may work for tracking ovulation.”
- Check your cervical mucus. Cervical mucus tends to increase when you’re fertile and “has more of a clear, stretchy, and ‘egg white’ appearance,” Dr. Ahmad says.
- Track your basal body temperature. Basal body temperature is your lowest body temperature at rest. This temperature will fluctuate slightly throughout your menstrual cycle, rising when you ovulate. So tracking it can help “predict ovulation in future cycles,” Dr. Ahmad says. In order to track your basal body temperature, you need to check your temperature at the same time every day, when you wake up and before you do anything. “Once someone ovulates, their temperature rises by at least 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit and will stay elevated for a few days,” Dr. Ahmad says. According to the Mayo Clinic, you are most fertile during the two to three days before your temperature rises.
- Use pee strips. These tests typically track the levels of luteinizing hormone (aka the chemical responsible for triggering certain reproductive processes, like ovulation) in your urine, Dr. Greves says. You pee on them to see if you’re ovulating and to track your cycle.
- Invest in smart ovulation tracking. At-home wearables, like ovulation-tracking wristbands, track physiological parameters like your heart rate, skin temperature, and respiratory rate to try to help predict when you’ll ovulate, Dr. Ahmad says.
How Do Ovulation Kits Work?
Ovulation test kits are designed to let users know when there’s a surge of luteinizing hormone (LH), Dr. Soma says. “In a normal menstrual cycle, the LH hormone rises 24 to 36 hours before ovulation occurs,” she explains. “Patients start testing the LH level a few days before expected ovulation, around day 10 in a 28-day cycle.”
These urine tests usually involve a strip with a control line that’s dark and a test line. “The test line should be as dark or darker than the control line when the test is positive, indicating the LH surge has occurred,” Dr. Soma says.
If you get a positive result and are trying to conceive, “I recommend having intercourse that day, for sure,” Dr. Greves says.
Ovulation and its role in pregnancy can be a little confusing, especially if you don’t have regular cycles. If you’re unsure of when you ovulate and trying to conceive, talk to your doctor for more information. “We’re here to help,” Dr. Greves says.