Brown Discharge: What Does It Mean?


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What is Brown Discharge?


Brown discharge is caused when a small amount of old blood mixes with your normal vaginal discharge creating a brown tinge. The reason it’s brown is because as blood ages, it turns from red to brown giving your discharge a light to dark brown colour.

In the vast majority of cases having a little bit of old blood in your discharge is perfectly fine and nothing to worry about. Most of the time brown discharge is just blood from your last period taking a little longer to be expelled.

For many of us the sight of unexpected brown discharge in our underwear or when we wipe can be a cause for alarm. We immediately start asking ourselves (and Google), what does this mean? Is there something wrong with me? Should I go to my doctor?

For those of you that have found your way to this article, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and relax. Brown discharge can be a sign of a health problem but in the vast majority of cases it is nothing to worry about.

Doctor Dominic Rowley is a specialist in sexual health and H.I.V (infectious diseases) and he has answers about what brown discharge is and how you can determine if your symptoms are a cause for concern or not.


Brown discharge is usually nothing to worry about, however, it may be a sign of a number of abnormal health conditions that require medical attention, including:

  • Bacterial Vaginosis
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
  • Endometriosis.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), in particular chlamydia.
  • Cervical Cancer.

Dr. Rowley explains that experiencing a small amount of brown discharge mid-cycle can be a sign of ovulation or pregnancy (implantation bleeding), a positive sign if you are trying to conceive.

Brown Discharge: What Does It Mean?

“It is perfectly normal for your discharge to range from red at the start of your period to a rusty brown towards the end of your period” says Dr. Rowley

However, he stresses that in some cases brown discharge can be a sign of an underlying health issue that requires medical attention such as:

  • Hormonal imbalances caused by hormonal contraceptives.
  • Hormonal imbalances caused by perimenopause or menopause.
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
  • Endometriosis.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
  • Cervical Cancer.

To understand if you should be concerned or not, Doctor Rowley recommends that you should try to be more aware of your body and to think about brown discharge the same way a doctor would.

"When a woman comes to my office and is concerned about brown discharge the first step I take is to get a better understanding of her personal situation including her age, whether she sexually active, whether she using hormonal birth control and if there is a chance that she is pregnant."

This is because the circumstances and symptoms that accompany brown discharge often shed more light on the cause of the brown discharge than the discharge itself.

To help you, we asked Doctor Rowley to describe the most common causes of brown discharge, the common symptoms that accompany these causes and how you can decide what to do next.


What To Do If You Notice Brown Discharge?


A common question and cause for concern for many girls experiencing their first year or two of menstruation is that your period blood might not always be red. Instead, it might be brown and you may notice yellow or white discharges at various points in your cycle. This is perfectly normal.

The colour of your discharge changes over the course of your menstrual cycle due to fluctuations in your hormones, from red/brown during your period, to thick and white just after your period and clear, like egg white during the middle of your cycle (around the time of ovulation).

If you have recently started your period, having a small amount of brown discharge is often nothing to be concerned about. It is quite common for your period to be red or brown in colour, irregular and light for the first couple cycles.

However, if you are experiencing other symptoms along with brown discharge or if you are noticing brown discharge mid-cycle then you should talk to a parent or doctor as it might the sign of PCOS or an infection.


When Brown Discharge Is Completely Normal


Brown Discharge: What Does It Mean?

Irregular brown discharge can be quite concerning. The good news is that most of the time it is nothing to worry about but it is always better to keep an eye on it and talk to your doctor if you are concerned, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

“It is often perfectly natural to notice brown discharge during your cycle. It might be caused by something as simple as a delayed period, your hormonal birth control or the onset of perimenopause” says Dr. Dominic Rowley.

Doctor Rowley explains some of the normal reasons why you might notice brown discharge during your cycle:

Delayed or partial periods

  • If you notice brown discharge around the time you normally expect to have your period, then it might be the result of a delayed or partial period. Menstruation occurs when your hormones tell your body that you haven’t gotten pregnant this cycle causing your body to expel the endometrial lining in preparation for your next cycle. Sometimes, your body isn’t able to completely expel all the endometrial lining immediately leaving a small amount in the uterus. Over the course of your next cycle you might notice red or brown spotting in your underwear or when you wipe. This is just the rest of the endometrial cells being expelled. While it might appear alarming, in most cases it is nothing to worry about. However, if this becomes a regular occurrence then it is best to let your doctor know.

Hormonal contraceptive

  • Most hormonal birth control methods work by interfering with your bodies natural hormonal cycle to prevent your body from ovulating. The drawback to this hormonal interference is that they can cause some unwanted side effects such as brown discharge. This is especially common if you have just started using a new hormonal birth control method or forgot to take your birth control pill for a day or two. If you are noticing prolonged periods of brown discharge or are experiencing other side effects such as nausea, weight gain, sore or swollen breasts, and mood changes. then it is best to let your doctor know as they will be able to recommend a birth control method that better suits your body.

Ovulation spotting

  • Seeing brown spotting mid way through your cycle could be a sign that you’ve just ovulated. When the egg leaves the follicle during ovulation or as a result of the changing hormone levels it is common for some women to notice some mild spotting. This spotting can be light red, brown or pink in colour as it often mixes with the clear egg white type cervical fluid present around the time of ovulation.

Pregnant

  • If you notice a small amount of brown discharge or spotting a couple days before you are expecting your period it could be a sign that you are pregnant. When the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine lining it can cause a small amount of bleeding, more commonly known as “implantation bleeding”. This bleeding is typically very light, and lasts only a couple days (1-2 days). The existence of implantation is a topic of debate in the medical community but if you do notice some brown discharge around this time don’t be alarmed as it is perfectly normal and doesn’t pose any risk to your chances of maintaining a pregnancy.

Perimenopause

  • During the initial stages of menopause your period can be replaced with bouts of brown discharge or spotting as your hormonal balance begins to change. Women typically start to enter these initial stages of menopause after the age of 35-40, and is often accompanied by night sweats, vaginal dryness, sleep disruption, hot flashes, and mood swings. If your symptoms are severe then talk to your doctor as she may be able to give you some medication to ease the severity of your symptoms.

When Brown Discharge Could Be The Sign Of A Problem


Brown discharge may be caused by a number of completely natural causes that pose no risk to your health.

However, Doctor Rowley stresses that in certain circumstances brown discharge can also be a sign of a more serious problem that requires medical attention. Typically, this is only the case if the brown discharge you notice is accompanied by other symptoms.

“Typically when you talk to your doctor about the brown discharge you noticed the first thing she will ask you a couple questions to see if you have any other symptoms that may indicate a more serious problem. Are you sexually active? Have you been experiencing any pain or discomfort whilst urinating? As these symptoms could indicate that there is a abnormal reason for your brown discharge”

Here are some of the other possible causes of brown discharge and the symptoms that will often accompany any discharge you might see:

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

  • About 1 in 10 women will get bacterial vaginosis at some point in their lives. Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted disease. The condition can affect people who have never had sex, and people in same sex relationships. BV is common in women who are pregnant, the condition occurs when there is an imbalance in certain bacterias in the vagina. You are more likely to suffer from bacterial vaginosis if you smoke, if you have multiple sexual partners are if you are douching, (or rinsing out your vagina.)
    The main characteristic of bacterial vaginosis is a fishy smell originating from the vagina and brown coloured discharge.

PCOS

  • Brown discharge can be a symptom of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as irregular or absent periods, weight gain, acne, or excess facial and body hair. PCOS is the most common reproductive endocrine disease among women, with an estimated 5-10% of teens and young women developing the condition. The severity of the symptoms can vary from woman to woman but if you notice any of the above mentioned symptoms you should talk to your doctor about them, as it might be a sign that you have a hormonal imbalance like PCOS.

Endometriosis

  • Brown discharge before and/or after your period can also be a sign of endometriosis if it is accompanied by extreme pelvic pain and very heavy periods. Endometriosis is a condition where the endometrial lining that normally forms on the inside of the uterus, grows outside the uterus around the ovaries, in bowel tissue, or in the cervix or vagina. During your period the body will shed the endometrial lining of the uterus and anywhere else it has formed, causing extreme pain and very heavy periods. If you notice any of these symptoms you should contact your doctor because endometriosis can cause infertility if left untreated.

Infection

  • Brown discharge can also be a early sign of a infection, if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as rashes, burning with urination, pain during or after sex, abdominal pain, fever and foul-smelling discharge. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts (HPV), vulvovaginitis and pelvic inflammatory diseases (PID) can all cause brownish discharge or spotting. LetsGetChecked’s STD test data shows that vaginal discharge is the most common sign of a infection; followed by itching or rashes around the vagina or anus, and pain or a burning sensation when passing urine.

If you have had unprotected sex recently and are now noticing brown discharge along with any of the other symptoms mentioned above, you should consult your doctor or take a quick STD test to make sure that you haven’t contracted an infection.

Cervical Cancer

  • In the very rare cases brown discharge might also be a indicator of cervical cancer if it is accompanied by unexpected weight loss, pain during intercourse, weakness, heavier or longer periods or bleeding between periods. This is by far the most serious cause of brown discharge, but as cervical cancer is quite rare (the National Cancer Institute estimates that only 0.7% of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetimes) it is unlikely that your brown discharge is being caused by cervical cancer. However, if you do notice discharge along with any of the above symptoms then talk to your doctor immediately just to make sure you are in the clear.

When Should You Talk To Your Doctor About Brown Discharge?


As you can see, there are so many potential causes for brown discharge that is impossible for us to say for certain what is causing yours. If you are concerned about any vaginal discharge, it is always best to talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Doctor Rowley recommends that you should speak to your doctor just to make sure everything is okay if you notice brown discharge along with any of these other symptoms:

  • Pain or bleeding during/after intercourse, lower abdominal pain, excessively heavy periods, pain urinating, pelvic pain or foul smelling discharge.
  • Any abnormal bleeding between your periods that lasts for three days or more.
  • Any abnormal spotting that occurs for three or more consecutive menstrual cycles.
  • Any abnormal abnormal vaginal bleeding or spotting after completing menopause.

Occasional brown discharge is normally nothing to worry about. However, it is a good idea to take note of when it has occurred and what (if any) other symptoms you may be displaying. This way you will know what is normal for you and have all the information you need if you do decide to go to the doctor.


Find out more about vaginal discharge with Dr. Dominic Rowley:


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Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley