It can be nerve-wracking to look down in your underwear and see brown discharge that you aren’t expecting. What can it mean? How does light brown discharge compare to dark brown discharge? Are you pregnant?!
Relax. Most of the time, brown discharge (like its white counterpart) is totally normal and nothing to be worried about. But you should still know what’s happening to your body – and what might go wrong.
In this guide we’ll break down all the causes of brown discharge, both benign and potentially problematic. We’ll also give you specific steps on how to tell when you need to go to the doctor to get things checked out.
Why Do I Have Brown Discharge?
Brown discharge is almost always caused by old or dried blood. Blood is red when it’s fresh, but the more time passes, the browner it gets.
The idea of discharging old blood might sound alarming. But it’s important to stress up front that most of the time, brown discharge is completely normal. Most women will experience benign light or dark brown discharge at some point in their lives (or at many points!)
We’ll start out by going over all the common, normal reasons why women could experience some brownish discharge.
Brown Discharge And Your Normal Menstrual Cycle
Most often, brown discharge is simply a byproduct of your normal menstrual cycle chugging along, doing its thing.
Right Before, During, or After Your Period
It’s very normal to experience brown discharge right before, during, or after your period. If it’s before your period, it’s probably remnants of old endometrial tissues (perhaps from the previous month) being flushed out of the body.
During your period, especially towards the end, you may see brown or even black blood instead of the reddish blood you are more used to. This is just older endometrial tissue being expelled and is no cause for alarm.
Brown discharge and/or brown spotting in the few days following your period is also very normal and common. This could be gooey or quite liquid. It is just the remaining endometrial tissue and blood being expelled. Blood gets browner over time, so the browner the discharge, the older the blood. So even a dark brown discharge at this time is likely nothing to be worried about.
It’s also common to experience brown discharge around the time of ovulation, midway through your cycle. This is due to some minor bleeding associated with the ovulation process. You might see light spotting that is any shade of brown from light to dark, or even pinkish.
Brown Discharge and Hormonal Changes: Normal
Major hormonal shifts that go beyond the monthly fluctuations of your menstrual cycle—like menopause and birth control—can also cause brown discharge.
As you begin to transition to menopause (generally sometime in your 40s, although some people experience perimenopause as early as their mid-30s), your body’s estrogen levels will drop. As estrogen drops, periods may be irregular, you may experience brown spotting, and periods may be replaced completely by light or dark brown discharge. You may also experience vaginal dryness, hot flashes, insomnia, mood swings, and night sweats.
These are all expected signs of the onset of menopause. However, there are a number of treatments available for any uncomfortable symptoms, so you may want to see your doctor anyways. The vaginal dryness caused by menopause may also cause bleeding during intercourse. This could cause brown discharge in the following days as old blood is expelled from the vagina.
Hormonal Birth Control
Hormonal birth control shifts hormone levels in the body both to prevent ovulation from happening and to thicken cervical mucus (to keep sperm from entering the uterus). This hormone shift can cause side effects, including “adaptation bleeding.” This means you may spot in between periods for the first several months of using a new hormonal contraceptive. Hormonal birth control can also cause brown discharge, especially if you forget a pill for one or more days.
Minor Vaginal Trauma and Brownish Discharge: Normal
Minor trauma to the vagina or cervix can cause a small amount of bleeding. This may cause brown discharge or brown spotting for a couple of days as the blood is gradually expelled from the vagina. Trauma could be caused by especially vigorous sex or a pap smear, where a swab scrapes tissue from the cervix. This is not an issue unless the bleeding persists for more than a few days.
Pregnancy and Brown Vaginal Discharge: Usually Normal
Pregnancy and brown discharge have a complicated relationship in that there are many times in a pregnancy where you might have brownish discharge, and there are several things it could mean. Most are benign, but some are indicative of an underlying issue. We’ll do some demystifying here.
Brown discharge can be one of the earliest signs of pregnancy. A few days before your (skipped) period, you may see a couple of days of brown discharge. This is due to implantation bleeding: light bleeding caused when a fertilized egg implants into the uterine wall. Not all women will experience or notice implantation bleeding.
Additionally, the symptoms of pregnancy at this point in time are remarkably similar to pre-menstrual syndrome (bloating, tender breasts, etc). Thus, unless you already believe there is a chance you may be pregnant or you are attempting to get pregnant, you may not register this as an early sign of pregnancy.
An Early Sign of Labor
Brown discharge can also be one of the first signs that labor is near. When labor is imminent (within a few days), the mucous plug sealing off your uterus may pass in one large piece or in several pieces. It may be brown, pinkish, or red with some blood.
Don’t be alarmed! Brown spotting during the early stages of a pregnancy is not at all uncommon. However, brown spotting or brown or red discharge can sometimes be an early sign of miscarriage. This is especially true if the spotting or dark discharge persists for multiple days or weeks or is very heavy. So while spotting during the early phases of pregnancy is common, you should always address it with your doctor.
Serious: Brown Discharge as a Symptom of An Infection or Condition
Less frequently, brownish discharge is a symptom of an infection or medical condition. In this section we’ll give info on these conditions and how to spot them. Don’t be alarmed by how many conditions are listed here! Most brown discharge is completely normal, but we are including all potential causes to arm you with all of the information possible.
An STD or STI
There are several STIs that can lead to brown vaginal discharge, most notably chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV/genital warts. In this case the discharge will mostly likely be accompanied by other symptoms, such as:
- Burning or itching of the vulva
- Burning at urination
- Pelvic pain
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Lesions or rash on the vulva
If you are sexually active and your brown discharge is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, go to a doctor immediately. They will be able to diagnose and treat your condition.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, or PID, is an infection of the reproductive organs. It is a common complication of untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia infection (a particular issue because these STDs are often asymptomatic). It can also be a complication of pregnancy or abortion, but these cases are much rarer. In addition to brown discharge, which will often have a strange odor, PID can cause abdominal pain, pain during sex, a burning sensation during urination, fever, and menstrual irregularity. PID can be treated with antibiotics but may cause fertility problems even if treated. If you experience these symptoms, go to a doctor ASAP.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine system disorder in which many cysts form on the ovaries. This causes hormones to shift so that the ovaries produce more androgens than is typical. PCOS can make a woman cease ovulating for periods of time, and instead of periods, she may have only brown discharge. Women with PCOS frequently have 9 or fewer periods per year.
Other symptoms include acne, weight gain, body hair growth, fertility issues, and depression. If you suspect you may have PCOS, see your doctor ASAP as early diagnosis can prevent long-term complications, like diabetes.
Uterine polyps are growths inside the uterus, in the endometrial tissue (the tissue that lines the uterus). They are usually benign and often cause no symptoms. When they are symptomatic, the most common signs are irregular menstrual bleeding, bleeding after menopause, fertility issues, and spotting (which may be brown). There are several diagnostic techniques; once a polyp is detected, it will need to be biopsied to make sure it is benign. If it is cancerous, it is likely you will need a hysterectomy, but this is rare.
Endometriosis is a condition in which endometrial tissue—the tissue that ordinarily only lines the inside of the uterus—is found elsewhere in the abdomen. Endometriosis can cause spotting between periods; this spotting may be brown. It can also cause excessive menstrual pain, heavy periods, short or irregular menstrual cycles, painful intercourse, fertility problems, pain with urination (especially during menstruation) and gastrointestinal discomfort (especially during menstruation).
Endometriosis can sometimes be diagnosed through a pelvic exam, although often a laparoscopic procedure is necessary to confirm diagnosis. A variety of treatments exist, from going on hormonal birth control to manage the symptoms to a total hysterectomy in older women.
In very, very rare cases, brown discharge may be a sign of cervical cancer. In this case, the brown discharge may be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Pain during sex, potentially with bleeding afterwards
- Unusual bleeding—heavier/longer periods or spotting between periods
- Weight loss
- Unexplained weakness
It’s important to stress that this is rare—fewer than 1% of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer during their lifetimes, and getting pap smears and pelvic exams as directed is your best chance for early detection. However, if you feel that your dark discharge indicates anything abnormal, do go to the doctor and express your concerns.
When To Go To Your Doctor
As you can see, there are tons and tons of potential causes for vaginal discharge. Some are totally normal, and others may be a cause for concern. So how do you know when to get it checked out?
If any of these signs apply to you, go to a medical professional to get everything checked out:
Your Brown Discharge Persists Over Time
A couple of days of brown discharge is unlikely to be a sign of a serious issue. However, if your discharge lasts longer than a few days, or recurs over many months, you may want to get it checked out.
You Are Experiencing Irregular Menstrual Cycles
Brown discharge coupled with an irregular menstrual cycle could indicate an issue like PCOS or endometriosis. This is something you may want to mention to your doctor.
Your Brown Discharge Is Accompanied By Other Symptoms
If your brown discharge has a strong, unusual odor or is accompanied by abdominal/pelvic pain, itching or burning, or a rash or lesion, go to the doctor ASAP as it is likely you have an infection.
You Are Pregnant
While brown discharge and spotting are not abnormal during pregnancy, it is something you will want to bring up with your doctor so they can make sure everything is a-okay.
You Feel It’s Unusual
If you feel like something unusual is going on, go to the doctor! You know your body best and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Brown Discharge and Spotting: What You Need to Know
Brown discharge is generally caused by bleeding in the reproductive organs. However, most brown discharge is normal and nothing to be concerned about. It can be caused by your normal menstrual cycle, hormonal shifts, minor vaginal trauma, and pregnancy.
Sometimes, when accompanied by other symptoms, brown discharge could be a sign of a medical issue such as an STD or STI, PID, PCOS, uterine polyps, endometriosis, and in very rare cases, cervical cancer.
How do you know if you should go to the doctor? Well, if you have any of the following signs:
- Your brown discharge persists over time—either for longer than several days or recurring repeatedly
- Your menstrual cycle is irregular
- You are experiencing other symptoms, like pain, itching, burning, or a foul odor to the discharge
- You are pregnant—while brown discharge during pregnancy is not uncommon and even expected at times, it is best to discuss this with your doctor.
- You feel it is unusual—if you feel there is something unusual about your discharge, go to the doctor and get it checked out!