Brown Discharge – Possible Causes and Meaning  

FAQ

Table of Contents

Women experience vaginal discharge on an almost daily basis. Vaginal discharge is typically thin and clear, but it can also be brown, pink, or yellow.

Finding brown discharge on your underwear can be overwhelming. The first time this happens can leave you scared, wondering whether something is wrong.

Don’t worry, brown discharge is common before or after your period and during pregnancy. In all these cases, is it normal. Yet when should you worry about it? What are the causes? Read on to find out when discharge is normal and when it can indicate something more problematic.

What is Brown Discharge?

Vaginal discharge is mucosal secretions the glands in your cervix and vaginal walls produce. It keeps your vagina clean and healthy while protecting it from infections and irritation.

Vaginal discharge may contain small amounts of old blood that has taken longer to get out of the uterus. When blood leaves the uterus immediately, it is a shade of red. When it takes longer to leave, by the time it comes out it has oxidized and is light or dark brown.

Most people think that normal discharge should be white or clear. However, this is not always the case. Your discharge can often vary in color and consistency due to your menstrual cycle. As such, brown discharge can be normal and nothing to be concerned by. Let’s explore what causes brown discharge.

Brown Discharge Before Your Periods

You may have brown discharge before you menstruate. If you shed your uterine lining early, the blood may take more time to get to your vaginal opening. This exposes it to oxidation, making it brown-colored.

On its way out, the blood mixes with cervical mucus and vaginal fluids causing brown discharge. Among the causes of this situation include.

  • The start of a period when the flow is very light
  • Ovulation spotting that is usually pinkish-brown
  • The aftermath of a pap smear or vaginal examination
  • Reaction to vigorous sex
  • Menopause: If you are in your 40s or 50s, brown discharge can be a sign of perimenopause – the period before menopause.

Brown Discharge after a Period

For some women, periods come with cramping, mood swings, and feeling bloated. Once your period is over, you wipe only to find brown discharge.

Brown discharge after a period can be frustrating and possibly alarming. Luckily, it does not indicate any problem, and you shouldn’t worry about it.

Here are some causes of brown discharge after your period:

  • Dry period blood: as said earlier, brown discharge is from the blood that takes long to leave your uterus. You may have brown discharge a few days after your period finishes when dry blood exits your body.
  • Birth control methods: when using birth control methods that contain progestin, a dark-colored discharge is normal and expected. Also, if you have a birth control implant, you may experience irregular periods and brown discharge as side effects.

Brown discharge after your period does not need treatment.

Brown Discharge During Pregnancy

When pregnant, periods are the last thing you expect. What happens when you wake up to brown discharge one day? Brown discharge is one of the biggest concerns for expectant women.

Brown discharge or spotting can be an early sign of pregnancy. However, it is good to note that not every pregnant person develops this symptom.

The good thing about brown discharge in pregnancy is that it is a common occurrence, and most likely, there is nothing is wrong with you or your baby. Here are the common causes of brown discharge during pregnancy.

  • Implantation bleeding: this occurs when the fertilized egg attaches to the uterus lining. You can experience implantation bleeding 1 or 2 weeks after egg fertilization.
  • Sign that labor is approaching: if your due date is approaching, brown discharge could mean that labor is near. A few weeks or days before you give birth, you are likely to see a ‘bloody show’ depicting that your baby is almost here. In such a case, please call your doctor immediately.
  • Cervical irritation: a cervical irritation caused by sex, an infection, or cervical examination can cause pink-brown discharge.
  • Rarely, brown discharge can indicate an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage. Apart from brown spotting, ectopic pregnancy has symptoms like dizziness, fainting, rectal pressure, and pain in your abdomen, pelvis, or neck. Miscarriage may cause a gush of brown fluid. You may get other symptoms like cramping in the lower abdomen, passing blood clots from the vagina, and dizziness.

Even though brown discharge when pregnant is not a cause for concern, it is best practice to consult your doctor as a cautionary measure. It is better to be safe than sorry!

Importantly, monitor the appearance, quantity, and odor of the discharge. Here are warning signs of a serious underlying issue.

  • A considerable amount of discharge
  • Pain, cramping, and discomfort
  • Discharge coupled with watery fluid and lumpy matter
  • Discharge that persists for more than a week
  • Fever and chills accompanying the discharge.

Your doctor may conduct an ultrasound or pelvic exam to ensure that all is well.

Other Causes of Brown Discharge

At times, brown discharge indicates a more severe problem. You may experience other symptoms in addition to the brown discharge. Let’s look at the more serious causes.

1. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

It is an infection affecting the cervix and uterus. PID can result in brown discharge in addition to other symptoms, including:

  • Intense pain in the pelvis and lower abdomen
  • Painful sex
  • Fever
  • Painful urination

If you suspect you have PID, consult a doctor for treatment.

2. Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)

Your brown discharge could be a sign of an STD like chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and syphilis. You may experience other symptoms like painful sex, smelly discharge, and burning sensation when urinating. While most STDs are easy to treat, others require intense treatment.

3. Retained foreign object

When brown discharge comes with an odor, there could be a retained foreign object in the vagina. The object can be a tampon, condom, contraceptive ring, or a vaginal contraceptive –sponge or cervical cap. Book an appointment with your doctor when you have foul-smelling brown discharge.

4. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS affects 8-20% of women in child-bearing age globally. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that may cause brown discharge. Other symptoms of PCOS include;

  • Irregular periods – no or heavy periods
  • Excess hair on face or body
  • Pelvic pain
  • Acne
  • Discolored skin
  • Infertility

Consult a doctor if you suspect you have PCOS.

5. Endometriosis

Brown discharge, coupled with severe pelvic pain and heavy periods, can be a sign of endometriosis. Endometriosis takes place when the lining of the uterus grows beyond the uterus to areas around the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or rectum. When endometriosis goes untreated for long, it may cause infertility. Therefore, consult a doctor promptly when you suspect you have the condition.

6. Bacterial Vaginosis

This is an infection of the vagina. It occurs due to the overgrowth of naturally-occurring bacteria in the vagina. The main symptoms of the condition are foul odor and brown discharge.

7. Cervical Cancer

The National Cancer Institute reports that only 0.6% of women develop cervical cancer. So it is highly unlikely that the brown discharge is a sign of cervical cancer. Other than brown discharge other the symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Painful sex
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Heavy and long periods
  • Bleeding between periods

When you suspect you have cervical cancer, the first step should be talking to a doctor. The doctor will conduct a Pap test to determine if there are any abnormal cells in the cervix. The test results will dictate the next step.

What Should You Do When You Notice Brown Discharge

When you notice brown discharge, the first step is to assess its timing and other additional symptoms. If the discharge is only limited to before or after periods, then it’s a part of menstruation. As such, it is nothing of concern. However, when the discharge is prolonged, then there could be an underlying issue.

Examine what the discharge looks like –is it stringy or light? Stringy brown discharge that is itchy and smelly can indicate you have an infection. A brown discharge accompanied by pain and fever is a bigger problem and you should see a doctor immediately.

Tracking your cycle can assist in identifying whether your discharge is normal or not. For example, brown discharge after your periods and coinciding with your ovulation is typically normal. If you are trying to conceive and get brown discharge 1 to 2 weeks after a missed period, it could be implantation bleeding.

Bottom Line

It can be alarming and disconcerting to notice brown discharge. Luckily, brown discharge is typically not a cause for concern. However, when it is accompanied by other symptoms such as a bad smell, vaginal itching, and painful sex, or it continues for several weeks, you should consult a doctor. A doctor can explain why you have the discharge and treat any underlying condition.