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    Brown discharge: Everything you need to know

    Updated 08 September 2023 |
    Published 22 January 2019
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Jenna Beckham, Obstetrician and gynecologist, WakeMed, North Carolina, US
    Written by Olivia Cassano
    Flo Fact-Checking Standards

    Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

    From white and stringy to light brown, your discharge can change a lot during your cycle. Here’s everything you need to know about brown discharge.

    Key takeaways 

    • Brown discharge is caused by oxidized blood when it’s mixed with normal discharge. 
    • While a change in discharge can be alarming, brown discharge is usually normal and nothing to worry about. It could be a sign that your period has just ended or is about to start or that you’re ovulating
    • Sometimes, brown discharge can be an early sign of pregnancy, known as implantation bleeding
    • In some cases, brown discharge is a sign of an infection or something more serious, so if you notice a change in discharge with other symptoms like pelvic pain, itching, or a bad smell, reach out to your health care provider. 

    What does your discharge mean?

    Find out more in the Flo app

    What is brown vaginal discharge? 

    Although it can be disconcerting, spotting brown discharge in your underwear isn’t usually a cause for concern. Keep reading to learn more about the causes of brown discharge and when you may want to speak to your doctor. 

    Brown discharge is caused by the presence of blood. But blood is red, right? Yes, fresh blood is typically bright red, but it can become darker when it stays outside the blood vessels for a while due to a process called oxidation. This is when blood comes into contact with air and oxidizes, causing the blood to turn brownish.

    What about normal vaginal discharge? 

    Understanding what is “normal” for your body can be tricky, especially when it comes to vaginal discharge. Typically, healthy discharge is white, clear, or creamy, but it’s normal for discharge to change in texture and color depending on your cycle or overall health. 

    You can log your discharge in the Flo app

    Figure out what's normal for you

    Are there different types of brown discharge? 

    Most of the time, brown discharge is caused by blood mixed with vaginal fluid, but it can range in color from dark brown to light brown or cream. It can also look dry and sticky, and sometimes (such as at the beginning or end of your period), you might notice more brown discharge in your underwear. They say knowledge is power, right? Understanding what’s going on with your body, where you are in your cycle, and what changes in your discharge might mean is important in helping you understand when something isn’t quite right. A period tracker like Flo can help you do this. 

    Are there different colors of discharge 

    The color and consistency of your discharge can change throughout the month, so what is “normal” for you might look different depending on where you are in your cycle. For example, you might experience brown discharge before or after your period

    That being said, the color of your discharge can also be a sign that something isn’t quite right. Book an appointment with your health care provider for a checkup if your vaginal discharge is: 

    • Gray and watery
    • Green and frothy
    • White and chunky, like cottage cheese
    • Pink 

    What may cause brown discharge?

    There are a few reasons why you could be experiencing brown vaginal discharge. These range from perfectly normal causes like your period ending to more serious reasons like infections. That’s why you also need to be aware of any symptoms that accompany the brown discharge. Below are some of the most common causes of brown discharge:

    Period 

    One reason why blood may be found in your discharge is if you’re just about to start your period. If your flow is lighter at the start of your period, then your discharge may appear pink or brown. You might also experience brown discharge after your period, but what exactly causes this? This could be your discharge mixing with blood from your period that hasn’t left your body yet. 

    Hormonal contraception 

    If you’re on a form of birth control where you have a seven-day pause or take placebo pills (such as the combined pill), then you might notice some light brown discharge at that time. This is known as withdrawal bleeding, which is different from a real period. It’s totally normal and happens for two reasons: hormonal fluctuations and the way birth control affects the lining of your uterus. It’s also quite common to experience brown discharge if you use other hormonal contraceptives like the hormonal intrauterine device (IUD)

    Ovulation spotting

    Ovulation happens halfway through your cycle when an egg is released from an ovary. The fluctuations in hormones (estrogen and progesterone) during ovulation can cause some of the uterine lining to shed, which, in turn, can cause brown discharge

    While it’s true that brown spotting can be a sign of early pregnancy, spotting during ovulation doesn’t necessarily mean you’re pregnant. To tell the difference, it might be helpful to keep track of your cycle and log any changes in discharge.

    Sex 

    If you’ve had hard or vigorous penetrative sex, then you may notice some spotting or brown discharge afterward. This can be scary but fear not. You may have experienced some tearing or bleeding from your vagina, and this will usually heal on its own. Vaginal dryness can also cause bleeding during or after sex. If you’re worried or feel sore afterward, ask your partner to be gentler next time or try to find a position that prevents deeper penetration. Using lube can also make penetration more comfortable. Remember: sex should never be painful! If you always bleed, or are in pain during or after sex, speak to your obstetrician and gynecologist (OB-GYN). It may be an indication of an underlying condition

    Pregnancy

    While it might not be the sign you think of instantly, brown discharge can also be linked to pregnancy. It could be something called implantation bleeding. This may happen when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterine lining. Some people report noticing some spotting or brown discharge around this time. However, as implantation bleeding can align with the time you might expect your period, you might mistake it for your period, especially if your flow is usually light.

    Bleeding during pregnancy (especially during your 1st trimester) can be fairly common and isn’t always something to worry about. However, bleeding or bloody discharge could also signify a complication. So, if you notice a change in the color, texture, or smell of your vaginal discharge during pregnancy, it’s crucial you speak to your health care provider.

    Lochia 

    If you have just given birth, you might experience a type of postpartum discharge and bleeding called lochia. This can be quite heavy in the first few days and can be similar to a heavy period with dark red blood and clots. Lochia may gradually become lighter in color and flow. It may turn pinkish or brown before becoming creamy yellowish-white. If you’re at all concerned about bleeding after giving birth, your discharge is greenish or has a strong, unpleasant smell, you have a fever, or it’s accompanied by heavy bleeding, get in touch with your doctor right away.

    Perimenopause 

    If you’re in your late 30s, 40s, or 50s, brown vaginal discharge can be a sign of perimenopause, which is the transition into menopause. As your cycle becomes more irregular, brown discharge and spotting are more likely to occur. Keep an eye out for other perimenopause symptoms, such as:

    Gynecological exam or clinical procedure

    The tissue in your vaginal canal and cervix is pretty sensitive, and sometimes even slight trauma or discomfort can cause light bleeding. When you go for routine pelvic exams like a Pap smear or IUD insertion, you may experience a small amount of bleeding. This isn’t something you need to worry about ahead of your appointment. While gynecological exams can be a little bit uncomfortable, they shouldn’t be painful. Your doctor or OB-GYN should be gentle when they insert exam tools like a speculum to prevent discomfort and excessive bleeding, and if you are at all uncomfortable or in pain during a pelvic exam, feel free to ask your doctor to stop. They may have a smaller speculum or more lubricant on hand that will make your experience better. 

    STIs

    Although brown vaginal discharge is usually normal, certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause it too. These are some of the most common STIs that may cause brown discharge:

    • Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis usually causes yellow or greenish discharge that’s thin or foamy and has a fishy smell. Sometimes, though, trichomoniasis can cause irritation and bleeding that causes brown discharge, too. 
    • Chlamydia: One of the main symptoms of chlamydia is bleeding between periods and after sex. If this bleeding is light enough, it can look like brown spotting or discharge.
    • Gonorrhea: Much like chlamydia, gonorrhea can also cause irregular bleeding and spotting, which can look like brown discharge. 

    If you’re experiencing brown discharge and any of the above symptoms, see your doctor for an examination and sexual health checkup.

    Irritation 

    As mentioned above, your vulva is a pretty sensitive organ. In fact, anything from new washing powder to harsh fabrics or period products can irritate it. Inflammation of the vagina is known as vaginitis or irritant contact dermatitis, and it can cause light bleeding that can result in brown discharge. 

    Infections and medical conditions

    Aside from STIs, other types of infections or conditions can cause brown discharge. 

    If you recognize any of the symptoms of the conditions listed above, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor. 

    What should I do if I notice brown discharge?

    Spotting brown discharge in your underwear might be scary, but the crucial thing is to note the timing of your brown discharge and watch out for any additional symptoms. If you’ve noticed some dark brown discharge before or after your period, it’s very likely just part of menstruation. But if it doesn’t go away, or you’re experiencing pain or soreness or an unpleasant odor, it could be a sign that it’s time to visit your health care provider.

    It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on what your discharge looks like, as it can tell you a lot about your health. Keeping track of your cycle with an app like Flo can help you figure out if your discharge is normal for you. 

    How can I prevent it? 

    You can’t always prevent brown discharge — and if you experience it around your period, then you don’t need to. It may just be a normal part of your menstrual cycle. However, if you think your brown discharge might be caused by an infection, make sure you reach out to your health care provider, always practice safe sex, and get regular STI checkups in order to stay on top of your sexual health. 

    When should I talk to my health care provider? 

    If you’re experiencing brown discharge alongside other symptoms such as pain or a bad odor, or if it happens frequently after sex or after menopause, it’s best to reach out to your doctor. In very rare cases, heavy brown discharge and bleeding outside of your period may indicate something more serious, such as vaginal or vulvar cancer, ectopic pregnancy, or miscarriage.

    Anytime you’re worried about vaginal discharge or any other symptom, you should talk to your health care provider. In most cases, experiencing some brown vaginal discharge is perfectly normal, but it’s always worth getting a checkup if you’re worried. They’ll be able to explain what’s happening and treat any underlying conditions if necessary. 

    FAQs

    Can stress cause brown discharge?

    Stress can cause all sorts of changes to your period, like delays, unexpected bleeding, or even your period stopping altogether. This happens because stress can mess with the hormones in your body that are responsible for your menstrual cycle. So, it’s entirely possible to experience a change in your discharge because of stress.

    How long does brown discharge last?

    How long you experience brown discharge depends on the underlying cause. Brown discharge during your menstrual cycle should only last a few days. If you experience it for several weeks, speak to your health care provider, especially if you have other symptoms. It may be caused by an infection or STI, which can usually be easily treated. 

    Is implantation bleeding only brown?

    Nope! Implantation bleeding is usually light and may appear brown, dark brown, or slightly pink. It’s much lighter than a period and can last between a few hours and up to three days. So, you should only need to wear a panty liner to manage it.

    References

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    “Am I Pregnant?” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9709-pregnancy-am-i-pregnant. Accessed 31 Aug. 2023.

    “Bacterial Vaginosis.” NHS, www.nhs.uk/conditions/bacterial-vaginosis/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2023.

    “Bleeding in Early Pregnancy.” UpToDate, www.uptodate.com/contents/bleeding-in-early-pregnancy-the-basics?topicRef=6799&source=see_link. Accessed 31 Aug. 2023.

    Brzozowski, Philip. “Bleeding after Sex: What You Should Know.” Cleveland Clinic, 10 Oct. 2022, health.clevelandclinic.org/what-should-you-do-if-you-bleed-after-sex/

    Buck, Emily, et al. “Menstrual Suppression.” StatPearls, 24 May 2023, www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/154122.

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