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Reproductive Health

What Causes Brown Discharge and What Does it Mean?

Essential Takeaways

  • Brown discharge is created when blood ages in the body and pairs with cervical mucus
  • Most causes of brown discharge are benign
  • If you notice other symptoms like itching or odor along with brown discharge, contact your doctor

It can be disconcerting to notice brown vaginal discharge in your underwear or when you wipe. Most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about. It often occurs around the time of your period.

What is brown vaginal discharge?

Brown discharge is cervical mucus that is tinged with old blood. As blood ages in the body, it turns brown instead of a bright red. The reason for this is that blood oxidizes when exposed to the air.

What are the different types of vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is the fluid that comes out of the vagina as a result of the bacteria and fluids secreted by your vaginal cells. During different phases of your menstrual cycle, you may notice different consistencies and colors. The amount and frequency of discharge can vary from woman to woman. 

Here are the different types of discharge:

  • Brown: This is most common during your period; usually it’s just cervical mucus tinged with blood. It can also sometimes occur during early pregnancy—around the time that you expect your period (but don’t mistake it for implantation bleeding!)
  • Thick and white: This type of discharge is common just before or just after your period. If it’s accompanied by itching, you should talk to your doctor because it may indicate a yeast infection.
  • Clear and stretchy: Usually seen in the middle of your cycle, this type of discharge indicates that you are approaching ovulation and are highly fertile.
  • Clear and watery: Similar to clear and stretchy discharge, clear and watery discharge also indicates peak fertility—especially if there are copious amounts of it.
  • Yellow or green: Can be a sign of infection, especially if it’s chunky like cottage cheese, or has a foul smell. Talk to your doctor if you notice this type of discharge.

What causes brown discharge?

You can best determine the cause of brown discharge by examining some of the other circumstances and symptoms that surround it. Possible causes of brown discharge include:

Menstruation

Brown discharge may occur in the days before your period is due, or for several days after your period seems to have ended. 

The flow of menstrual blood slows down at the beginning and end of your period. When blood is flowing quickly, it’s usually red. Slower blood oxidizes, which causes it to turn brown.

This type of brown discharge is a normal part of menstruation. 

Perimenopause

During the years leading up to menopause, fluctuating estrogen levels can cause irregular bleeding or spotting. This spotting may be brown, pink, or red.

Perimenopause usually begins during a woman’s 40s. Other symptoms of perimenopause include:

  • Insomnia
  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Mood changes including irritability

Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is an infection that can cause brown discharge. Its main characteristic is a fishy smell coming from the vagina coupled with brown colored discharge.

Bacterial vaginosis is common in women who are pregnant.

Irritation to the cervix

Irritation to the cervix from things like a gynecological exam or pap smears and even over-enthusiastic sex can cause brown discharge.

Ovulation

Around 3% of women experience spotting around the time of ovulation. Other ovulation symptoms:

  • Increased basal body temperature
  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Clear, slippery vaginal discharge

Mid-cycle spotting may be caused by the dip in estrogen that occurs after ovulation.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

If brown spotting occurs in conjunction with irregular or missed periods, acne, weight gain or excess hair on the face or body, it could be a sign of PCOS.

PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that is estimated to occur among up to 10% of women.

Other symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Acne
  • Excess hair growth
  • Weight gain

Miscarriage

Spotting during pregnancy is sometimes, but not always, a sign of miscarriage.

Bleeding in pregnancy can sometimes be normal, but it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider if you experience this.

Other possible signs of miscarriage include:

  • Loss of pregnancy symptoms
  • Cramping
  • No morning sickness or nausea

Endometriosis

If it occurs with intense pelvic pain, and a very heavy period, brown discharge before or after your period can be a sign of endometriosis.

Endometriosis occurs when the lining of the uterus begins to grow outside of the uterus, such as around the ovaries, rectum, fallopian tubes, or vagina.

If you notice these symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider as severe cases of endometriosis can cause infertility if not treated.

Sexually Transmitted Disease

If it occurs in conjunction with other symptoms like fever, a burning sensation when urinating, pain during or after sex, abdominal pain, or foul-smelling discharge, then it could be a sexually transmitted disease.

Gonorrhea, chlamydia, genital warts (HPV), vulvovaginitis and pelvic inflammatory diseases (PID) can all cause spotting or brown discharge.

Ovarian Cyst

An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that forms on or inside of the ovary. Most of the time, it is benign, though it can cause pain or pressure, dull lower backache, and pain during sex or menstruation.

Some ovarian cysts are asymptomatic. The only way to detect an ovarian cyst is via ultrasound.

Endometrial or Cervical Cancer

In very rare cases, brown discharge could be a sign of cervical cancer if it occurs with unusual weight loss, painful intercourse, heavy or more prolonged periods, breakthrough bleeding during periods, or weakness.

This is the most severe cause of brown discharge, but it is also quite rare. (The National Cancer Institute estimates that only 0.7% of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetimes.)

And after menopause, spotting or bleeding that occurs irregularly or after sex is the most common sign of endometrial cancer.

Regular pelvic exams and checkups with your healthcare provider are important for early detection and prompt treatment of cancer.

Is a brown discharge a sign of pregnancy?

Pink or brown discharge is not an early sign of pregnancy. Bleeding or spotting outside of your menstrual cycle is more likely to occur when you’re not pregnant than when you are.

While brown spotting can occur during early pregnancy, it shouldn’t be considered a sign that you are pregnant. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that implantation bleeding really exists. There are not any apparent symptoms of implantation that are in any way distinguishable from signs of your impending period.

For some women, brown spotting does occur during early pregnancy. It can be scary when this happens, but most of the time, spotting during pregnancy is nothing to worry about (though it’s still a good idea to let your doctor know).

If you think you might be pregnant, the most conclusive way to really know is a positive pregnancy test (find out when to take a pregnancy test).

Is it normal to have brown discharge during ovulation?

Brown discharge can be an ovulation symptom. At the beginning of your cycle, estrogen levels are rising, which causes the uterine lining to grow. After ovulation, progesterone levels increase, which causes the uterine lining to thicken and mature. Spotting around the time of ovulation may be because the uterine lining has grown due to high levels of estrogen, but has not yet thickened since progesterone is not yet at its peak.

When should I talk to my healthcare provider about brown discharge?

If you notice occasional brown discharge, you probably don’t need to do anything. But it’s a good idea to jot down when you see it so you can track how frequently it occurs and see if it is associated with a specific phase of your cycle or a particular activity.

If the brown spotting lasts more than a couple weeks, frequently happens after sex, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as vaginal itching, weird smells, or cramping, then it’s a good idea to call your doctor to make sure it’s not a sign of infection.

If you notice any of the following, call your doctor:

  • Itching
  • Any pain or discomfort
  • Rash
  • Unusually heavy periods
  • Bleeding or pain during/after sex
  • Pain while urinating
  • Foul smelling discharge
  • Abnormal bleeding between your periods (lasting three days or more)
  • Unusual spotting (occurring for three or more consecutive cycles)


View sources

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Lindsay Meisel

Lindsay Meisel is the Head of Content at Ava. She has over a decade of experience writing about science, technology, and health, with a focus on women's health and the menstrual cycle. Her work has been featured on The Fertility Hour, The Birth Hour, The Breakthrough Journal, and The Rumpus.

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