Brown discharge from the vagina is a normal occurrence during certain times of the month, such as before or after a period. It can be due to a small amount of blood appearing in the discharge as the period starts or dry, old blood leaving the vagina after a period.
However, in some cases, brown vaginal discharge may be a sign of an underlying condition.
This article discusses when people might experience brown discharge and when to see a doctor.
There are several potential causes of brown discharge or spotting. While it is very common leading up to and immediately following a period, it does have other possible causes. These can be benign or may require medical attention.
Before and after a period
It is common for a person to have brown vaginal discharge a few days before their period, as well as a few days after it. When it occurs before, it is likely a light, early flow.
Following a period, brownish discharge is due to leftover menstrual blood leaving the vagina.
Perimenopause is the time leading up to menopause. According to the North American Menopause Society, it can last for 4–8 years. Perimenopause symptoms can include night sweats, vaginal dryness, and hot flashes.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists note that perimenopause can cause irregular bleeding and spotting. People should still discuss any abnormal bleeding with a doctor, however, as it could be a sign of polyps or a hormonal imbalance.
Certain birth control methods may cause spotting or some brown discharge. For instance, a person may experience irregular bleeding or spotting for about 3–6 months following the placement of an intrauterine device (IUD).
According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, birth control pills can cause spotting or brown discharge for the first few months of taking them. Spotting is more common with progestin-only pills than with those that also contain estrogen. It can also occur when people take a pill late.
People should see their doctor if they still have abnormal bleeding after 3 months of using the same birth control.
During early pregnancy, a person may experience harmless spotting, light bleeding, or brown discharge. This may occur due to implantation bleeding, which can happen when the embryo first attaches to the uterus, or as a result of the uterus removing old blood.
In later pregnancy, brown discharge could be a sign of issues with the placenta or preterm labor.
Pregnancy-related bleeding may be a sign of early pregnancy loss if:
- the bleeding is heavier
- there is abdominal cramping
- the discharge of fluid or tissue accompanies it
If a person notices brown discharge during pregnancy, they should talk to their doctor.
Several medical conditions may cause brown discharge. The following are some common ones:
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a metabolic and hormonal condition that affects 1 in 10 females of childbearing age. Aside from brown spotting, it can cause:
- missed periods
- thinning hair
- facial hair growth
- weight gain
- darkening skin in certain areas of the body
A person should talk to their doctor about a treatment plan that can help them manage their symptoms.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
STIs can cause unusual vaginal discharge. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, infections that could cause a brownish discharge include:
- pelvic inflammatory disease, which can be due to untreated cases of gonorrhea or chlamydia
Some people may not experience any symptoms. However, those who do may have:
- smelly discharge that may be white, yellow, brown, or greenish
- pain during sex or urination
- pain in the abdomen
- itchiness around the genitals
- rash or sores
Treatment for STIs depends on the cause of the infection. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for a bacterial infection or antiviral medication for a viral infection.
A person who suspects that they have an STI should talk to a doctor to prevent potential complications.
Hormonal imbalances may cause spotting or bleeding between periods, which can cause brown discharge. Certain factors can change hormone levels and cause abnormal bleeding from the uterus. These include:
- medications that affect estrogen and progesterone
- liver or kidney disorders
- thyroid or adrenal gland issues
- significant weight changes
People with abnormal bleeding between periods can see a doctor to discuss treatment options.
Ovarian cysts are fluid filled sacs that form on the inside of the ovaries. In many cases, they do not cause symptoms. In other cases, a person may experience:
- stomach pain
- weight gain
- pain during sex
- trouble emptying the bladder
- tenderness in the breasts
- bleeding or spotting between periods
If a cyst is large, cancerous, or causing symptoms, people may require surgical treatment to remove it.
In some cases, brown discharge may come in place of a period.
For example, a withdrawal bleed — which occurs when a person using a birth control pill takes inactive pills or no pills for a few days a month — may sometimes cause brown discharge rather than bleeding that resembles typical menstrual bleeding.
A person should talk to their doctor if they experience an unexpected brown discharge during their cycle and are concerned about what is causing it. They should also contact their doctor if other symptoms co-occur, including:
- pain in the abdomen
- pain when urinating or during sex
- foul smelling discharge
Pregnant people should talk to a doctor about unexpected changes in their discharge. These will usually not be cause for concern, but they can sometimes be a sign of an underlying issue.
Brown discharge is common and often the result of a benign cause, particularly if it occurs a few days before or after a period.
However, brown discharge can be a cause for concern if there are other symptoms present or the person is at risk of an STI.
A doctor can examine the discharge and provide treatment if there is an underlying medical condition. Depending on the cause, treatment may cure or help manage the condition.
It may not be possible to prevent brown discharge. People can take precautions to protect themselves against some causes, though, such as STIs. They can do this by:
- using barrier methods, such as condoms, during sexual activity
- limiting the number of sexual partners
- undergoing regular testing for STIs
- checking that sexual partners test regularly for STIs
Using nonhormonal birth control methods may help people avoid brown discharge in place of a period.
Brown discharge can be a normal part of the menstrual cycle, and it typically comes just before and after a period.
In other cases, it may be the result of an underlying medical condition. If a medical condition is causing brown discharge, a person may experience other symptoms. People can see their doctor for diagnosis and treatment.