Brown Discharge: Causes and When to See a Doctor

By Chesney Fowler, MD
Medically reviewed
June 14, 2021

Let’s be honest: discharge happens. It’s a normal part of having a healthy vagina and regular menstrual cycle. The tricky thing can be figuring out what kind of discharge is normal versus what might be a sign of an underlying health issue.

And if you’ve recently noticed brown discharge in your underwear (especially if you haven’t seen it before), you might be feeling concerned. 

In most cases, brown discharge before or after your period is completely normal and is not a cause for alarm.

All you need to do is wear a panty liner to stay fresh and then go about your day as usual. However, if the brown discharge is accompanied by other symptoms, it could be a sign of a possible health condition. Let’s talk about what to look out for.

What Is Brown Discharge?

Have you ever put a band-aid over a cut, then taken it off the next day to reveal a dried, brown stain? That’s what happens when blood is exposed to oxygen: it turns from red to brown through a process aptly named oxidation. So, it’s not a stretch to understand that your menstrual blood can do the same thing. 

Brown vaginal discharge before or after your period is exactly that, and usually not something to worry about. Through a natural process of oxidation, blood that is exposed to oxygen turns from red to brown.

Before your period, brown discharge can be due to just a small amount of bleeding and therefore a very light blood flow. It takes time for blood to flow from your cervix until you see it, and during this time, the blood gets older. The oxidation of that old blood makes it appear brown by the time it gets to your underwear.

Following your period, brown discharge is in most cases simply blood that has taken a little longer to be expelled.

If you’re spotting between periods, blood may mix with your usual white vaginal discharge, resulting in a brown, thick, rubber-like consistency. All of this is totally normal and fine.

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Types of Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of everyday life for women. It’s composed of fluids from the vagina and cervix that carry away dead cells and bacteria, keeping your vagina clean and protecting you from infection.

In the course of your menstrual cycle, the amount, color, and consistency of your vaginal discharge changes due to fluctuations in your hormone levels.

These changes are natural and vary from one woman to another. It’s a good idea to get to know your own menstrual cycle and discharge patterns so that you can notice any irregularities. If your menstrual cycle has always been irregular, it might be worth seeing an OB/GYN to figure out the cause.

Types of vaginal discharge during your menstrual cycle include:

  • During your period: Red or brown bloody discharge is normal during menstruation – your uterine lining is shedding as it is meant to do. Some women may also experience irregular periods or spotting between their periods. If you bleed for more than seven days straight or have to change pads or tampons every hour, this is abnormally heavy bleeding that should be checked out by a doctor. 
  • Post-menstruation: There may be a little discharge immediately after your period. Gradually, the amount of discharge increases and it may be yellow, cloudy, or white with a sticky consistency.
  • Pre-ovulation: As your body produces more estrogen, it also produces more discharge. The discharge is usually thin and elastic and usually indicates that you are highly fertile. (Don’t worry—if you’re using contraceptives, you can still get this kind of discharge. It doesn’t mean your birth control isn’t working.)
  • Ovulation: Ovulation is the phase right in the middle of your cycle when an egg is released from your ovary and begins traveling down your fallopian tubes. During ovulation, vaginal discharge is clear and watery, and there is a lot of it. Some people experience spotting during ovulation that may look pink or brown.
  • Post-ovulation: After ovulation, your discharge may change in color, and will have a thicker consistency.
  • Pre-menstruation: In the days leading up to your period, your discharge may once again become sticky. There is usually very little discharge one or two days prior to menstruation.

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Shades and Consistency of Brown Discharge

Brown vaginal discharge may look different depending on when and why it occurs. 

Light brown discharge

This results from white or clear vaginal discharge mixing with menstrual blood. It’s a sign of light bleeding or spotting, and it’s usually thick and rubbery in consistency. 

Dark brown discharge

This is most likely to occur right around your period. The discharge is dark brown because of blood oxidizing once it exits your vagina and comes in contact with open air. 

Black discharge

If your vaginal discharge is black in color, it could be a sign of particularly heavy menstrual bleeding. But if it has a strong smell or if you’re feeling excessive pain or discomfort (beyond your usual period cramping), it could be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or a rare but serious health issue like cancer. 

Thin vs. Thick vs. Clumpy Brown Discharge

During menstruation, your body sheds its uterine lining, and the result is a mix of blood, mucus, and endometrial cells. What this means is that your discharge consistency can vary quite a bit each day of your period. It might be thin and watery on some days and thick and clumpy on others. 

Causes of Brown Discharge

There are many possible causes of brown discharge. In most cases, brown discharge is nothing to be concerned about. However, brown discharge can indicate a possible health issue if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, such as vaginal itching, pain, a strong odor, or changes to your menstrual cycle.

If you experience brown discharge unexpectedly, there are a variety of different possible causes:

Early pregnancy

If you’re in the early stages of pregnancy, you might have light bleeding or brown spotting. In fact, as many as 30% of pregnant people have light bleeding or brown spotting during their first trimester. This is normal, but you should still call your doctor or health care provider to check that everything is alright.

Birth control implant

Some contraception methods like IUDs or implants release the progestin hormone into your body to prevent you from getting pregnant. As your body adjusts to the new form of birth control, you might experience side effects such as irregular menstruation, spotting, breakthrough bleeding and brown discharge.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

PID is an infection of the cervix and uterus that can sometimes result in brown discharge. It’s usually caused by an untreated STI like gonorrhea or chlamydia. Other PID symptoms include pain in the lower abdomen and pelvis, pain during sex, fever, painful urination, and heavy discharge with a bad smell. PID is a serious medical condition that needs prompt evaluation and treatment.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Some STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, can cause you to have brown discharge or spotting when you don’t have your period. Other symptoms include vaginal discharge with an unpleasant odor, pain during sex, and a burning sensation when urinating.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is a fairly common hormonal condition that affects one in ten people with vaginas of reproductive age (15-49 years old). Its exact cause is unknown but likely has to do with genetics and excess insulin in the body. People with PCOS have an imbalance of reproductive hormones: Their bodies produce higher levels of hormones called androgens, resulting in irregular or missed periods. One symptom of PCOS is brown discharge instead of your period. Other symptoms include irregular menstrual cycles, acne, excessive hair growth, obesity, infertility, ovarian cysts, and dark patches on the skin.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a chronic condition that occurs when the tissue that is normally in your uterine lining starts growing in other areas, such as your ovaries, fallopian tubes, or bowels. People with endometriosis experience irregular bleeding and heavy periods, and they may occasionally notice brown discharge from internal bleeding related to their condition.

Perimenopause

This is the stage of life when you approach menopause and your body starts adjusting to the transition. It usually occurs in your forties, but the exact age varies from person to person (some people enter perimenopause an entire decade earlier).

During perimenopause, your estrogen levels fluctuate, and this hormonal imbalance disrupts your menstrual cycle. These changes can often lead to brown discharge following your period, and sometimes also at other points in your cycle when you wouldn’t normally expect it. Other symptoms of perimenopause include hot flashes, vaginal dryness and pain, night sweats, and mood swings.

Reaction to a Pap smear test or gynecological exam

It’s normal to experience some light bleeding or spotting after a Pap smear or vaginal exam. OB/GYNs work hard to be careful in these situations, but sometimes their tools can cause slight irritation inside the walls of your vagina or cervical lining. If you experience this without any other symptoms, you don’t usually need to worry about it.

Reaction to vigorous sex

If you’ve recently had vigorous sex, vaginal irritation can cause light bleeding. It may take a few days for the blood to leave your body, and during this time the blood turns brown as a result of oxidation.

Ectopic pregnancy 

Occasionally after unprotected sex, a fertilized egg will attach itself outside your uterine cavity, causing an ectopic pregnancy. This is rare, but when it happens, it’s serious and requires medical care ASAP to prevent life-threatening complications. Signs of ectopic pregnancy include light bleeding and spotting, severe abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, and lightheadedness.

Cervical cancer

In extremely rare cases, brown discharge could be a sign of cervical cancer if it’s accompanied by symptoms including painful intercourse, heavy or prolonged periods, bleeding between periods, unusual weight loss, or weakness. Regular Pap smears and gynecologic care can help prevent and detect any early signs of cervical cancer. Every person with a vagina between the ages of 21 and 65 should get these tests to stay proactive.

Brown discharge and your period: What’s normal and when to worry

Why is my period blood sometimes brown?

Brown blood can look alarming if you’re expecting it to be… you know, bright red. But if you’ve ever looked at a wound or cut that’s a few days old, you can see that the blood has changed to a dark brown color. This is due to a process called oxidation, where oxygen binds with hemoglobin (a protein in your blood cells). This changes the color of old blood from red to brown. So, if your menstrual blood takes a few extra days to exit your vagina, it might be brown by the time you see it. 

What does black period blood mean?

Black period blood can be a sign of oxidation combined with heavy bleeding. If it occurs around the same time you usually menstruate (in combination with red and brown blood), it’s usually nothing to worry about. Black blood that occurs outside the window of your period, combined with a foul odor or abdominal discomfort, could be a warning sign of an STI

Why is my discharge sometimes brown before my period?

This usually means you are beginning to bleed from your menstrual cycle, and that blood is mixing with other discharge to create a brown color. It might be thick, sticky, or rubber-like in consistency. No worries, though—your period should still continue as normal. 

What if I just have brown discharge instead of my period?

You may just be having some slight irregularities in your cycle. When someone starts a new hormonal treatment or birth control, sometimes their period is replaced with brown discharge or light spotting for the next several months as their body adjusts. 

Brown discharge instead of menstruation could also be a sign of implantation bleeding in early pregnancy. If you’ve recently had unprotected sex and start experiencing mild cramping, nausea, fatigue, and sensitive breasts, it’s worth getting a pregnancy test. 

What to Watch For and Risk Factors

Pregnancy, birth, and miscarriage

Brown discharge instead of your period could be an early sign of pregnancy. About one to two weeks after a fertilized egg attaches to your uterine lining (which occurs during ovulation), you may notice some pink or brown blood from implantation bleeding.

If you have recently had unprotected sex and have brown discharge instead of a period, it’s definitely a smart move to get a pregnancy test. (Pro tip: The drugstore versions are just as effective as anything you can get at a doctor’s office—plus, they’re way cheaper.) 

If you’re pregnant and experience a small amount of brown discharge, it is usually nothing to worry about but it’s important to speak to your doctor just in case.

In rare cases, dark brown discharge during pregnancy can be a sign of miscarriage. Other possible signs of miscarriage include cramps, so if you are experiencing cramping along with unusual discharge, it may be worth calling your doctor.

If you’ve recently given birth, it’s normal to have pink or brown discharge for up to six weeks postpartum. This is called lochia.

Brown vaginal discharge with unpleasant smell

If you notice brown discharge with a strong, unpleasant odor, you should speak with your doctor as it could be the sign of a vaginal infection like and STI or a retained foreign object such as a tampon. Retained foreign objects can result in serious infections and need prompt evaluation in person. The unpleasant smell is the key indicator that something isn’t normal, and it’s worth contacting your doctor ASAP.

Treatment and Prevention

Your treatment will vary depending on what’s causing the brown discharge. If you’re suffering from a vaginal infection, for example, your doctor will prescribe you antifungals or antibiotics, depending on the kind of infection you have.

To prevent infections that can cause abnormal discharge—usually characterized by a four odor and gray or green color—vaginal hygiene is important:

  • Don’t douche. The vagina is designed to clean itself, and discharge is its natural way to help irritants flow out of your body. It’s okay to wash with water, but soap inside your vagina can upset the delicate balance of your vaginal flora and result in bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is not an STI, but it can be extremely itchy and requires antibiotic treatment.
  • Avoid using perfumed soaps, sprays, and wipes. These can affect your vagina’s pH level and lead to irritation, yeast infections, or BV. 
  • Urinate after sex and clean your sex toys after each use.
  • Wear breathable cotton underwear and change it daily. 
  • Change out of wet or sweaty clothes as soon as possible. Moist environments are prime targets for bad bacteria.

If you are constantly having brown discharge or spotting and it’s bothering you, ask your OB/GYN. They may consider prescribing a new birth control method with higher estrogen that can help stop the spotting. Hormonal contraception can also help manage chronic menstrual pain from conditions like PCOS or endometriosis.

Starting in your early twenties, it’s important to schedule cervical screenings with your doctor annually to ensure early detection of cancer. Men and women can also be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common cause of cervical cancer.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends Pap tests every three years for women ages 21-29, and Pap or HPV testing every three to five years for women ages 30-65.

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When to See a Doctor

If you experience occasional brown discharge, it’s usually not a cause for concern. However, if the brown discharge lasts for several weeks, frequently happens after sex, has an unpleasant smell, or occurs after your menopause, you should speak to your doctor.

Additionally, if you experience any of the symptoms below alongside brown discharge, you should consult with your doctor:

  • Cramps or pelvic pain
  • Vaginal itching 
  • Pain during urination
  • Abnormal bleeding between periods
  • Extremely irregular periods
  • Frequent missed periods

How K Health Can Help

If you’re worried about the color of your discharge, talk to a doctor. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does brown discharge mean?
There are many possible causes of brown discharge. In most cases, brown discharge is nothing to be concerned about. However, brown discharge can indicate a possible health issue if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, such as vaginal itching, pain, a strong odor, or changes to your menstrual cycle.
Can a yeast infection cause brown discharge?
Brown discharge alone is typically not a sign of a yeast infection. However, if you experience brown discharge with other symptoms like itching or burning, that may indicate that you have a yeast infection. Talk to a doctor about your symptoms to get proper treatment.
Is light brown discharge normal in early pregnancy?
Yes. Light brown discharge instead of a period is normal during pregnancy. If you experience light brown discharge along with other symptoms, consider talking to your physician to ensure you are not experiencing complications.
Is it normal to get brown discharge instead of your period?
Yes! This is normal. Sometimes months your uterus has less tissue to clear than others - when this happens, you'll experience brown discharge instead of a full period. It is typically nothing to worry about, but if you find this happening month over month, talk to your doctor.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.