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Reproductive Health

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. You’re probably used to your cervical mucus changing consistency throughout your cycle, from white and creamy to clear and stretchy. But brown discharge can catch you off guard, especially if you’re not on your period. The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, brown discharge is normal and nothing to worry about.

What is Brown Discharge?

Brown discharge is cervical mucus that is tinged with old blood. As blood ages in the body, it turns brown (fresh blood is bright red).

What Causes Brown Discharge?

Your period

Sometimes your period can start or end with a few days of brown discharge. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about.

Ovulation

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

Pregnancy

For some women, brown spotting occurs in very early pregnancy. It can be scary when this happen, 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 clear symptoms of implantation that are in any way distinguishable from symptoms 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).

Irritation of the Cervix

Your cervix is a sensitive creature. Gynecological exams, pap smears, and even over-enthusiastic sex can sometimes cause brown spotting.

Perimenopause

If you are over 45 years old, brown discharge may be an early sign of menopause, particularly if it is accompanied by mood swings, hot flashes, and insomnia.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can cause brown spotting. PID is usually accompanied by abdominal pain, pain during sex, fever, foul-smelling discharge, and burning with urination.

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 back ache, and pain during sex or menstruation. Some ovarian cysts are asymptomatic. The only way to detect an ovarian cyst is via ultrasound.

PCOS

Polycistic ovarian syndrome is a hormonal imbalance. The most common symptom is irregular or absent periods, though it can also cause brown spotting, excessive hair growth, acne, or weight gain.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is the most serious cause of brown discharge, but it is very rare. The National Cancer Institute estimates that only 0.7 percent of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetimes. Typically brown discharge is not the only symptom present with cervical cancer. It is often accompanied by pain during sex and bleeding afterwards, heavier and longer periods, and bleeding between periods.

What to Do About Brown Discharge

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

If the brown spotting lasts more than a couple weeks, happens frequently 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.

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