Brown Discharge: 11 Possible Causes and Symptoms

by Oct 14, 2020

Experiencing brown discharge on your underwear or when you wipe can be concerning and you may feel scared or worried when you see it for the first time. However, brown discharge happens more often than you may think. Most of the time, brown discharge doesn’t indicate any problem.

women in a pink shirt

There are many possible causes for brown discharge, such as infections, period, vigorous sex, menopause, infection, or ectopic pregnancy. In this post, we will look at 11 potential causes as well as the symptoms you can expect from each.

What is brown discharge?

Brown discharge results from normal cervical mucus mixed with blood. The texture and amount of cervical mucus changes throughout the menstrual cycle due to fluctuating hormone levels. Brown discharge indicates that a few drops of blood may be present in your cervical mucus.

While fresh blood has a bright color, it starts to turn brown as it ages or comes in contact with air. In other words, brown discharge is simply oxidized blood mixed with your normal cervical mucus.

What it can look like

Brown discharge doesn’t always look the same, especially when it comes to color. The color of brown discharge may vary from very dark brown to light brown to pink-brown. Different shades of brown discharge can indicate different things (read about other types of vaginal discharge here).

Brown

What it means:

Brown discharge results from oxidized blood mixed with normal cervical mucus. It’s common to see a brown flow at the beginning or end of your menstrual period. Brown discharge around the date of your expected period may indicate that menstruation has begun.

Sometimes, brown discharge is also an early sign of pregnancy resulting from implantation bleeding, especially if it happens 6-12 days past ovulation (DPO). Implantation bleeding occurs when a fertilized egg implants itself in the uterine lining, resulting in pregnancy.

The movement of the egg may cause a slight brown discharge. Take a pregnancy test on the day of your next menstrual period if you suspect you might be experiencing implantation bleeding.

Dark Brown

What it means:

The darker your brown discharge, the more oxidized blood is present in your cervical mucus. Extremely dark, or almost black, discharge most often occurs at the very beginning or very end of your menstrual period.

Rarely, dark brown or blackish-brown discharge may indicate a vaginal blockage. Blockages can result from foreign objects lodged in the vagina or cervix (such as a “lost” tampon or condom), or from vaginal tissue blocking menstrual blood from completely exiting the cervix. See your doctor if you suspect a vaginal blockage may be responsible for your dark brown discharge.

Tan/Light Brown

What it means:

Light brown discharge means that there is less blood present in your cervical mucus — perhaps only a few drops. This can indicate an extremely light menstrual flow, especially if it occurs toward the beginning or end of your period.

Light brown discharge can also be a sign of implantation bleeding (if it occurs after ovulation) or spotting (if it occurs at any time outside of your menstrual period). If you think you may be pregnant, take a pregnancy test on the first day of your next expected period to see if you are experiencing implantation bleeding. If not, you may be experiencing spotting.

Light spotting between menstrual periods is normal for many women, especially if you are using hormonal birth control. Occasionally, however, spotting may be a sign of a medical problem, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, sexually transmitted infection (STI), or cervical cancer. Visit your OB/GYN if you find that you are frequently spotting between periods.

Pink-Brown

What it means:

Pink-brown discharge most often occurs during menstruation, especially if you are using a birth control method that lowers estrogen. Period blood can turn light red or pink when you have low estrogen. When this blood oxidizes, it may appear pink-brown instead.

Pink-brown discharge is also a common sign of pregnancy. It may indicate implantation bleeding, especially if it is very light. It may also occur during the first two trimesters of pregnancy after a speculum exam or sexual intercourse, due to collision with the cervix.

As long as it lasts fewer than three days, pink-brown discharge during pregnancy is not anything to worry about.

Is brown discharge normal?

Brown discharge is extremely normal and should not cause you any alarm in most cases.

If the bleeding is confined to the beginning or end of your period, it’s most likely due to the slowing of your menstrual flow; the blood takes more time to get from the cervix to your pad or tampon, so it may oxidize in the meantime.

If you experience brown spotting between periods while using hormonal birth control, it’s most likely a side effect. Talk to your doctor if you become concerned, but know that it is probably nothing to worry about.

If you are trying to conceive and have brown discharge after ovulation, it may be a good sign! Brown discharge could be due to implantation bleeding. Take a pregnancy test on the first day of your expected period to make sure.

Rarely, brown discharge may signify a problem with the reproductive tract. Visit your doctor if you have concerns about brown discharge. It never hurts to be safe.

What can cause brown discharge?

Many things can cause brown vaginal discharge. Luckily, most of them aren’t cause for concern. Here are some common causes of brown discharge:

1. Bacterial Vaginosis

Overview

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection of the vagina, caused by the overgrowth of bacteria naturally found in the vagina. It occurs primarily in women of reproductive age. The reason for the infection is unclear. But the risk of BV is associated with unprotected sex or frequent douching.

Symptoms

  • Foul-smelling (“fishy”) vaginal odor
  • Thin, watery, brown or gray discharge
  • Itching or burning of the vagina
  • Can also be asymptomatic

2. Perimenopause

Overview

You may see brown discharge or light bleeding during the early stages of menopause. This is often caused by changes in hormone levels and most often occurs in your early 40s.

Symptoms

  • Brown discharge or spotting
  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches

3. Menstruation

Overview

Brown discharge can happen at the beginning or end of your period as a result of old blood exiting the uterus. If you see brown discharge before your expected period, it could mean your period has arrived early. Brown discharge can also last for a couple of days after the end of your period. It should gradually get lighter and disappear over time.

Symptoms

  • Brown period blood, often accompanied by a light flow
  • Period cramps
  • Breast tenderness
  • Mood swings

4. Ovulation

Overview

Rarely, some women experience brown discharge around the days of ovulation. It is mostly due to the drop in estrogen levels after ovulation, which is totally normal.

Symptoms

  • Light brown discharge that goes away within 12-24 hours
  • Ovulation pain, often on one side of the pelvis or abdomen
  • Clear, stretchy vaginal discharge (egg-white consistency)
  • Increase in basal body temperature (BBT)
  • High libido

5. Ovarian Cyst

Overview

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that exist inside the ovaries. They are usually harmless and may disappear after your menstrual period. Other times, however, you may need to have them removed. Call a healthcare provider if you experience any of the signs of ovarian cysts. The diagnosis of an ovarian cyst can only be confirmed via ultrasound.

Symptoms

  • Light brown spotting
  • Pelvic or lower back pain
  • Painful menstrual periods
  • Pressure in the abdomen or pelvis

6. Implantation

Overview

Brown discharge can be a sign of pregnancy and implantation. When the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine lining, you might notice brown spotting called implantation bleeding. Some women say this is the only symptom of early pregnancy they notice. If you experience brown spotting and may be pregnant, you should do a pregnancy test on the first day of your missed period to confirm pregnancy.

Symptoms

  • Brown spotting or discharge
  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Sore breasts
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings

7. Ectopic Pregnancy

Overview

Ectopic pregnancy is an early pregnancy outside of the uterus that occurs in 1 in 50 pregnancies. Almost all ectopic pregnancies occur in the fallopian tube and are thus sometimes called tubal pregnancies. The fallopian tube is not designed to host fetal development, so ectopic pregnancies are not viable. Ectopic pregnancy should be treated immediately, as it can cause life-threatening bleeding if your fallopian tube ruptures.

Symptoms

  • Brown or red vaginal bleeding
  • Pelvic pain, often one-sided
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or weakness
  • Shoulder, neck, or rectal pain
  • Positive pregnancy test

8. Breakthrough Bleeding

Overview

Breakthrough bleeding or spotting is any vaginal bleeding you may experience between periods or while you are pregnant. Many things can lead to breakthrough bleeding, such as sensitivity of the cervix, hormonal birth control, and inflammation. If you see continuous and heavy bleeding, please seek help from a healthcare professional. Otherwise, it is probably nothing to worry about.

Symptoms

  • Brown, red, or pink discharge occurring between periods or during pregnancy (this is the only symptom)

9. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

Overview

PCOS is a common reproductive health problem that affects ~10% of women globally. PCOS is caused by imbalances in estrogen, progesterone, and male sex hormones (called androgens). Tracking your fertility hormones can help you better understand how PCOS affects your body.

Symptoms

  • Brown spotting or discharge
  • Irregular or absent periods
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Weight gain
  • Acne
  • Abnormal hair growth, especially in places where men would grow hair (such as the face or chest)

10. Hormonal Birth Control

Overview

Changing, starting, or stopping hormonal birth control may lead to light bleeding. This bleeding can be red, pink, or brown and is due to changing hormone levels.

Symptoms

  • Light bleeding that is red, pink, or brown
  • Recently changing, starting, or stopping hormonal birth control
  • Switching birth control methods

11. Cervical Cancer

Overview

Rarely, brown discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is most common in Black and Hispanic women in their 40s. You are more likely to get cervical cancer if you smoke, if you have had human papillomavirus HPV (more on HPV and pregnancy here), if you have had an abnormal Pap smear result, or if you have a relative who has had cervical cancer. If you experience brown discharge along with other symptoms of cervical cancer, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor ASAP.

Symptoms

  • Abnormal discharge or bleeding, which may be brown, red, or pink in color
  • Watery discharge that may be heavy or have a foul odor
  • Pelvic pain or pain during sex (especially during deep penetration)
  • Previous HPV infection
  • Abnormal Pap smear result
  • History of smoking
  • Family history of cervical cancer

Can brown discharge be a sign of pregnancy?

Brown discharge can sometimes be a sign of implantation bleeding or early pregnancy. When the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine lining, light bleeding can result.

However, you should use a pregnancy test on the first day of your next expected period to confirm that your brown discharge is caused by spotting. If you test earlier than that, your pregnancy hormone level may be too low for the pregnancy test to detect, which could lead to a false-negative result.

Brown discharge can also happen anytime throughout pregnancy. Although it sounds scary, it is usually normal. If you are pregnant and experiencing spotting, you should consult with your doctor to be safe. He or she can let you know when to worry, and when it’s nothing.

When should I talk to my doctor about brown discharge?

You probably don’t need to talk to a doctor if you have occasional and light brown discharge with no other symptoms. If you experience any concerning symptoms along with brown discharge, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to make sure everything is fine.

Concerning symptoms, along with brown discharge, that warrant a trip to the doctor’s office include:

  • Heavy or prolonged discharge or bleeding
  • Foul vaginal odor
  • Vaginal itching or burning
  • Pelvic pain
  • Painful intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Fever or chills

Visit a medical professional ASAP if you notice any of these symptoms alongside brown discharge. These symptoms could indicate the presence of an infection — or, rarely, something more serious, like cervical cancer. While usually, brown discharge is nothing to worry about, it never hurts to seek your doctor’s advice.

✔️ Medically Reviewed by Banafsheh Kashani, MD, FACOG

Banafsheh Kashani, MD, FACOGBanafsheh Kashani, M.D., FACOG is a board-certified OB/GYN and specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Eden Fertility Centers, and has been treating couples and individuals with infertility since 2014. Prior to joining Eden Centers for Advanced Fertility, she was practicing as a top fertility specialist at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County and Reproductive Fertility Center. Dr. Kashani has received numerous awards throughout her years of study and medical training. 

Dr. Kashani has conducted extensive research in female reproduction, with a specific focus on the endometrium and implantation. Additionally, Dr. Kashani has authored papers in the areas of fertility preservation, and fertility in women with PCOS and Turners syndrome. She also was part of a large SART-CORS study evaluating the trend in frozen embryo transfers and success rates.

Dr. Kashani is a fellow of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In addition, she is a diplomat of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and an active member of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and Pacific Coast Reproductive Society (PCRS). She is also a member of the Society of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (SREI).

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