Brown Discharge: 11 Possible Causes and Symptoms

by | Aug 16, 2019

Experiencing brown discharge on your underwear or when you wipe can be concerning. 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. If you are highly concerned about it, consult with a healthcare professional as soon as possible. It is always a good idea to be safe.

 

What is brown discharge?

Brown discharge is the cervical mucus mixed with blood. When blood gets older, its color turns brown. The texture and amount of cervical mucus change within a menstrual cycle due to the hormone levels. It is simply a few drops of old blood. When the blood is fresh, it has a bright color. But when it contacts air, it starts to turn brown. Your blood is simply oxidized.

 

What can cause brown discharge?

Many things can cause brown discharge, but most of them are not concerning. However, you need to pay attention if there are other symptoms accompanying the brown discharge:

  • Foul-smelling discharge
  • Vaginal itchiness

  • Painful intercourse

  • Painful urination

  • Abdominal tenderness

  • Fever or chills


If so, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Here are some common causes of brown discharge:

 

1. Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is an infection of the vagina, caused by the overgrowth of bacteria naturally found in the vagina, which upsets the natural balance. The reason for the infection is unclear. But the risk is associated with unprotected sex or frequent douching.

It often happens with women in the reproductive age. It is characterized by foul-smelling vaginal odor together with brown discharge.

 

2. Perimenopause

You may see brown discharge or light bleeding during the early stage of menopause. This is often caused by changes in hormone levels. This can happen in your early 40s. You may also experience perimenopause symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and headaches.

 

3. Period

If you see brown discharge before a period, it could be part of your period. Brown discharge can happen at the beginning or end of your period.

Your uterus is cleaning itself out when the period flow gets light. The discharge could last for a couple of days after the end of your period. It should gradually get lighter and disappear over time.

 

4. Ovulation

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.

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5. Ovarian cyst

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that exist inside the ovaries. You often don’t feel it, but it can cause lower back pain, menstruation pain, pressure, and brown spotting. Call a healthcare professional if you feel any of these symptoms. Ovarian cyst can only be detected by ultrasound.

 

6. Implantation bleeding

Brown discharge can be a sign of pregnancy and implantation. When the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine lining, small bleeding could happen. Some women report they only notice implantation bleeding by the brown spotting when they wipe. You should do a pregnancy test on the first day of the missed period to confirm pregnancy.

 

7. Ectopic pregnancy

Ectopic pregnancy is an early pregnancy outside of the uterus. Almost all ectopic pregnancies occur in the fallopian tube and are thus sometimes called tubal pregnancies.

The fallopian tube is not designed to host the fetal development. Ectopic pregnancy must be treated or it can cause heavy bleeding. It occurs in 1 out of 50 pregnancies.

 

8. Breakthrough bleeding

Breakthrough bleeding is any vaginal bleeding you may experience between your menstruations or while you are pregnant. Many reasons could lead to breakthrough bleeding, such as sensitive cervix, change of hormonal birth control pills, and inflammation. If you see continuous and heavy bleeding, please seek help from a healthcare professional.

 

9. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is a commonly occurring problem in women’s health. It affects ~10% of women globally.

Together with a heavy period, acne, weight gain, and irregular ovulation, the brown discharge can also be a symptom of PCOS. PCOS is caused by hormone imbalances. Understand your fertility hormones to know better about your body.

 

10. Hormonal birth control

A sudden change or stop of hormonal birth control can lead to a change in hormone levels, which can cause light bleeding.

 

11. Cervical cancer

Rarely, brown discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer, if it occurs together with unusual weight lose, heaving period, painful sex, or weakness. If you experience any of these symptoms together with brown discharge, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor as soon as possible.

 

Can brown discharge be a sign of pregnancy?

Brown discharge can be a sign of implantation bleeding or early pregnancy. When the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine lining, light bleeding can happen. However, you should use a pregnancy test to check your hCG hormone level to confirm it is a pregnancy.

Brown discharge can happen during early pregnancy. Although it sounds scary, it actually can be normal. If you are pregnant and experiencing spotting, you should consult with your doctor. It is always a good idea to be safe.

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.

If you experience extended or heavy bleeding, together with itching, pain, rash, weak, cramp, or smell, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to make sure everything is fine.

 

✔️ Medically Reviewed by Dr Roohi Jeelani, MD, FACOG and Lauren Grimm, MA

roohi jeelaniDr Roohi Jeelani is Director of Research and Education at Vios Fertility Institute in Chicago, Illinois. Dr Jeelani earned her medical degree from Ross University School of Medicine in Portsmouth, Dominica. She then completed a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology and a fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Wayne State University, Detroit Medical Center, where she was awarded a Women’s Reproductive Health NIH K12 Research Grant. She is board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr Jeelani has authored numerous articles and abstracts in peer-reviewed journals, and presented her research at national and international scientific meetings. A Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr Jeelani is a member of the American Medical Association, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, and the American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopists.

Lauren Grimm is Research Coordinator at Vios Fertility Institute in Chicago, Illinois. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola University Chicago, where she also completed her masters in Medical Sciences. Lauren has worked alongside Dr. Jeelani for the last 3 years, authoring a number of abstracts and articles in peer-reviewed journals, and presented her research at national and international scientific conferences. Lauren will be continuing her education this fall at Rush University Medical College in Chicago, IL as an MD candidate.

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