What Causes Brown Discharge and What Does it Mean?
It can be disconcerting to notice brown vaginal discharge in your underwear or when you wipe. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s nothing to worry about. Brown discharge is usually just old blood from your period taking a bit longer to leave the body. It’s usually caused by cervical mucus mixing with old blood—which is why it’s a brown color instead of bright red, like fresh blood.
What is Brown 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 hormones. Cycle tracking can be helpful for getting in tune with your body, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant.
What Are the Different Types of 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.
For the purpose of trying to conceive, the discharge you want to pay the closest attention to is clear, stretchy discharge with the consistency of egg whites. This is a sign that ovulation is about to occur and that you are in your fertile window.
Here are the different types of discharge:
- Brown: It’s common during your period; Usually it’s just cervical mucus tinged with blood. Sometimes occurs in early pregnancy—around the time that you expect your period—and is usually nothing to worry about.
- Thick and white: This type of discharge is common just before (or just after) your period. It’s perfectly normal unless it is accompanied by itching, which can indicate a yeast infection. If you experience itching, you should definitely talk to your doctor.
- Clear (egg-white consistency) and stretchy: Usually seen in the middle of your cycle, around ovulation, and is an indicator that you’re in your fertile window.
- Clear and watery: Can occur throughout your lifetime and throughout your cycle for a number of reasons and is no cause for concern. (From a TTC perspective, though, you want to try to distinguish between discharge that is clear and watery versus clear and stretchy, like egg whites—this is the sign that you’re fertile!)
- Yellow or green: Can be a sign of infection, especially if it’s chunky like cottage cheese, or has a foul smell. Definitely talk to your doctor if these symptoms arise.
What Causes Brown Discharge?
Brown discharge comes from a variety of causes—and you can rest easy knowing that the majority of them are completely normal. You can best determine the cause of brown discharge by examining some of the other circumstances and symptoms that surround it.
Things to consider are:
- Sexual activity
- Whether you’re using hormonal birth control
- If there is a chance that you could be pregnant
Is brown discharge a 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 could be the result of a delayed period.
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.
Could it be 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.
What infection causes brown discharge?
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is an infection that can cause brown discharge. Its main characteristic is a fishy smell coming from the vagina coupled with brown colored discharge. BV is common in women who are pregnant, and the condition tends to occur as a result of imbalances in certain bacteria in the vagina.
What should I do if I notice brown discharge?
Most of the time, you don’t need to worry at all if you notice brown discharge. And if it’s not accompanied by other symptoms—like abdominal pain or discomfort while urinating—then it’s probably caused by something benign. But if you’re experiencing brown discharge regularly, or if you’re concerned for any reason at all, then it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor.
What else could be the cause of brown discharge?
Other benign causes of brown discharge include irritation to the cervix from things like a gynecological exam or pap smears and even over-enthusiastic sex.
When could brown discharge be the sign of a problem?
- 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 charge could be a symptom of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (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 endometriosis can cause infertility if it is not treated.
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). 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 or spotting.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Any pain or discomfort
- 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)