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Brown Discharge: Causes and When to See a Doctor

If you’ve noticed brown vaginal discharge in your underwear, you might be feeling concerned and wondering what’s causing it. 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.

Protecting your vaginal health is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a woman. I’ll explain everything you need to know about brown discharge, its causes, and what to look out for.

What Is Brown Discharge?

Brown vaginal discharge before or after your period is 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.

Both before and after your period, as the blood slowly flows, it mixes with your usual discharge and gives it the brownish color.

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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.

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.
  • 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 this kind of discharge indicates that you are highly fertile.
  • Ovulation: During ovulation, your discharge is clear and watery, and there is much more of it than at other points during your cycle. Some women 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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Abnormal Discharge

If your discharge is yellow or green, thick and white, or has an unpleasant smell, then it could be the sign of an infection and you should consult with your doctor.

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:

  • During pregnancy: If you’re in the early stages of pregnancy, you might have light bleeding or brown spotting. This is normal but you should call your doctor or health care provider to check that everything is alright.
  • Birth control implant: Some contraception methods, such as an IUD, releases the progestin hormone into your body to prevent you from getting pregnant. As your body adjusts to the implant, 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 result in brown discharge. Other 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 women of reproductive age (15-49 years old). Women with PCOS have an imbalance of reproductive hormones. Their bodies produce higher levels of 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.
  • Perimenopause: This is the stage of life when you approach menopause and your body starts adjusting to the transition. The age when it starts and its symptoms vary from woman to woman, but it usually occurs in a woman’s forties. During perimenopause, your estrogen levels fluctuate and this disrupts your menstrual cycle. These changes can often lead to brown discharge following your period, and sometimes also at other points in your cycle. 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. 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.
  • 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 are an essential part of every woman’s health.

What to Watch For and Risk Factors

Pregnancy, birth, and miscarriage

If you missed a period, you might experience brown discharge instead of your regular period. This could be an early sign of pregnancy. The discharge is caused by implantation bleeding about one or two weeks after a fertilized egg attaches to the lining of your uterus. If you experience brown discharge after unprotected sex, you should take a pregnancy test.

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 or a retained foreign object such as a tampon. Retained foreign objects can result in serious infections and need prompt evaluation in person.

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, vaginal hygiene is important:

  • The vagina is designed to clean itself. 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 result in bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is not an STD but can be extremely itchy and requires antibiotics.
  • Avoid using perfumed soaps, sprays, douches, and wipes as these can affect your vagina’s natural balance of organisms and lead to irritation or BV
  • Wear 100% cotton underwear to help avoid excess moisture

Your doctor may also consider prescribing a contraceptive with higher estrogen that can help stop the spotting.

Starting in your late teens, 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.

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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 abdominal pain
  • Vaginal itching or pain
  • Irritation during urination
  • Abnormal bleeding between 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.