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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. Brown discharge is usually related to spotting in the days before your period begins, or old blood from your period taking a bit longer to leave the uterus. 

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 color of your discharge changes during your cycle due to changes in your reproductive hormone levels. Cycle tracking can be helpful for understanding where you are in your cycle and what changes are occurring. 

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?

In most cases, brown discharge is normal and nothing to be concerned about. 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:

Perimenopause

Sometimes during the beginning stages of menopause, you may experience brown discharge or spotting as a result of changes in your hormones. These early stages of menopause typically begin after the age of 40.

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, and the condition tends to occur as a result of imbalances in certain bacteria in the vagina.

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.

Your period

Brown discharge does sometimes occur at the very beginning or very end of your period. If it is happening around the time that you usually expect your period, it might actually be part of your period. 

Ovulation

Some women experience light, pinkish brown spotting that coincides with ovulation. Mid-cycle spotting is most likely caused by the dip in estrogen that occurs after ovulation.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

If it occurs in conjunction with irregular or missed periods, acne, weight gain or excess hair on the face or body, then brown discharge could be a symptom of PCOS. PCOS is a hormonal problem that is estimated to occur among 5-10% of young women and teens.

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. It happens 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 doctor right away 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.

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.) However, if you experience any of these symptoms or are at all concerned, talk to your doctor.

Is a brown discharge a sign of pregnancy?

Pink or 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.

For some women, brown spotting occurs in very 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).

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.

That’s why, 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).

When should I talk to my doctor 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

A new look at abnormal uterine bleeding.

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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