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Brown Vaginal Discharge: What May It Mean?

Knowing how your body works and what your discharge means can help you understand what’s normal and when to ask for help. Read on to learn more about brown vaginal discharge and what it may mean.

What is brown vaginal discharge?

Finding brown discharge in your underwear or when you wipe can be disconcerting. The first time it happens, you might feel scared or wonder if it’s a sign that something’s wrong.

Normally, vaginal discharge is clear or white. Brown discharge is simply old blood. Fresh blood has a bright red color. Blood gets darker the more time it spends outside your blood vessels. When blood comes into contact with air, it goes through a process called oxidation. As the hemoglobin and iron in your blood interact with air, your blood turns a brownish hue.

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Brown discharge may be a sign of many things, from the implantation of an embryo to an impending period. However, there are some warning signs that you should keep in mind when it comes to vaginal discharge. And if you’re worried that you’re experiencing abnormal discharge, it’s always wise to go see a health care provider.

Are there different types of brown discharge?

Even though brown discharge can occur during different stages of your cycle, it’s always caused by old blood. There are different reasons for why that blood appears.

That’s why using a period tracker like Flo can be so helpful. These apps allow you to log any symptoms you have — itchiness, abdominal pain, brown mucusy discharge, etc. — so that it’s easier to understand why you’re experiencing brown discharge.

What may cause brown discharge?

There are many reasons why you could be experiencing brown vaginal discharge. These range from perfectly normal causes to reasons for concern. That’s why you also need to be aware of any symptoms that accompany the brown discharge. Some of the most common reasons why your discharge is brown may include:

  • Periods
  • Implantation bleeding
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Miscarriage
  • Ovulation
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome 
  • Hormonal birth control (breakthrough and withdrawal bleedings)
  • Adenomyosis 
  • Endometrial or cervical polyps
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Perimenopause

Is brown discharge a period?

Many people experience brown discharge before a period, when their flow is still very light and not much blood is coming out. It’s especially common to have brown discharge around two days before your period.

It’s also common to experience brown discharge after your period. This is perfectly normal, and it’s your uterus’s way of cleaning itself out when your flow is light. This discharge can last for a couple of days after your period is over. This is usually a dark brown discharge that lightens over time.

Although rare, some people experience very light brown discharge during ovulation. As the mature egg bursts out of the ovary, it can cause a small amount of bleeding and even a slight twinge of abdominal pain.

People who take oral contraceptives could experience brown discharge instead of a period. This happens during the week of inactive (placebo) pills. The fluctuation of hormones causes what are called “withdrawal bleedings.” Some birth control regimens don’t cause withdrawal bleeding for a long time.

If you’re on birth control, you could also have breakthrough bleeding, which causes light brown discharge or spotting. Since birth control hormones also make your uterine lining less stable, you may have some brown discharge between periods. Usually, breakthrough bleedings tend to go away after a few months. As long as you’ve been taking your birth control properly and don’t have any other symptoms, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.

What does brown discharge after sex mean?

Some bloody brown discharge after sex could simply be a sign of vigorous sex. In some cases, your partner’s penis or sex toys can make your cervix bleed a bit while having rough sex. This can result in some light brown discharge. If you’re worried or feel sore afterwards, ask your partner to be gentler next time or try to find a position that prevents deeper penetration.

Sometimes brown discharge after sex can be a sign of a cervical polyp or sexually transmitted infection.

Can brown vaginal discharge be a sign of pregnancy?

Brown discharge may be a sign of implantation bleeding. This occurs when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterine lining. As it does, it creates a small amount of bleeding. You might notice implantation bleeding as brown discharge when wiping after urination.

Implantation bleeding tends to occur around the same time you expect your period. Although it’s usually very light, for some people, it is a bit heavier and resembles a period. So, if you’ve had unprotected sex and experience brown discharge and cramps instead of a period, it could be a good idea to take a pregnancy test (don’t forget to follow the instructions carefully).

Brown discharge during pregnancy usually may not signal a serious problem. However, brown discharge during pregnancy can also be a sign of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and other dangerous conditions. If you’re pregnant and experience brown discharge, talk to your health care provider. It’s always better to be safe!

Could it be perimenopause?

Brown vaginal discharge can be a sign of perimenopause, especially if you’re in your 40s or 50s. 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:

  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Night sweats
  • Skin changes
  • Insomnia

What infections can cause brown discharge?

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

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease 
  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea

A foreign body (such as a tampon, condom, sex toy, or contraceptive ring) can also lead to an infection and cause brown discharge.

Keep in mind that these infections don’t just cause brown vaginal discharge by itself. These are other symptoms to look out for:

  • Foul-smelling or/and increased discharge
  • Vaginal itchiness
  • Painful intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Fever or chills

If you’re experiencing foul-smelling or itchy brown discharge, or if you have any other abnormal symptoms, make sure to visit a health care provider. Any type of infection requires medical attention, and an early diagnosis is key to avoiding complications.

What should I do if I notice brown discharge?

The first thing to do is to keep an eye out for additional symptoms and note the timing of your brown discharge. 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, it could be a sign that it’s time to visit your health care provider.

You should also note what your discharge looks like. Thick or stringy brown discharge that’s foul-smelling or itchy may be a symptom of an infection. Pain or a fever are also warning signs that you need to see a health care provider. Having a lot of brown discharge if you’ve never had any before can also be abnormal.

Tracking your cycle can also help you determine if your discharge is normal. If you have brown discharge while not on your period, but it coincides with ovulation, this could also be normal. And if you suspect you might be pregnant, brown discharge one to two weeks after unprotected sex could be implantation bleeding.

When should I talk to my health care provider?

Anytime you’re worried about vaginal discharge or any other symptom, you should talk to your health care provider. Although period-related brown discharge is usually normal, they can help you try to reduce or eliminate brown discharge if there’s a problem.

If you’re on birth control, your health care provider might recommend trying a different method to stop brown discharge after your period. If your brown discharge is caused by ovarian cysts or an infection, they’ll be able to diagnose and treat the underlying cause of your discharge.

If you’re perimenopausal, your health care provider may recommend hormone replacement therapy. This treatment could alleviate spotting and other symptoms associated with perimenopause.

And if you’re experiencing brown discharge during pregnancy, it’s always a good idea to call your health care provider. Although it can be a normal occurrence, your health care provider can make sure that everything is going well.

In most cases, experiencing some brown vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. However, you should track your cycle and any other symptoms to know when you need to call your health care provider. They’ll be able to explain what’s happening and treat any underlying conditions if necessary. The most important thing is for you to be healthy, happy, and comfortable in your own body!

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“Bleeding During Pregnancy.” Acog.Org, 2020, https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Bleeding-During-Pregnancy.

“Vaginal discharge.” NHS Choices, NHS, 17 Jan. 2018, www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginal-discharge/.

“Combined pill.” NHS Choices, NHS, 6 Jul. 2017, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/combined-contraceptive-pill/.
“Menopause.” NHS Choices, NHS, 29 Aug. 2018, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/.

“Vaginal Discharge Causes.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 14 Feb. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/causes/sym-20050825.

Sweet, Mary Gayle, et al. “Evaluation and Management of Abnormal Uterine Bleeding in Premenopausal Women.” American Family Physician, 1 Jan. 2012, www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0101/p35.html.

“CDC - Combined Hormonal Contraceptives - US SPR - Reproductive Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 Feb. 2017, www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/mmwr/spr/combined.html.

Reed, Beverly G. “The Normal Menstrual Cycle and the Control of Ovulation.” Endotext [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 Aug. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279054/.

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