Brown discharge during pregnancy may mean different things, depending on the stage of pregnancy and any other health issues.

Brown vaginal discharge can be a normal sign of early pregnancy, but, alongside other symptoms, it can sometimes indicate complications.

Anyone experiencing concerning changes in vaginal discharge or dark brown discharge should contact their doctor.

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Brown discharge may indicate underlying problems during pregnancy.

Healthy discharge is a thin, clear-to-white substance that the vagina excretes. It is a normal function of a healthy vagina and not a cause for concern.

People may notice variations in the texture, smell, and color of this discharge.

Pregnancy has a range of effects on the body, and it is normal for women to experience changes in discharge corresponding to the stages of pregnancy.

Learn more about discharge during pregnancy here.

Early pregnancy

Brown discharge typically means that there is blood in the discharge. As the blood ages, it oxidizes, turning from a deep red to brown.

One study notes that bleeding is not uncommon during the first trimester of pregnancy.

While a bit of spotting is normal early on in pregnancy, it can still help to report the symptom to a doctor. The doctor may wish to perform additional tests to check the health of the pregnant woman and fetus, which can help provide peace of mind.

Implantation bleeding

Spotting may occur very early on in pregnancy due to implantation bleeding. It can cause a light brown discharge as the body removes the old blood.

Learn more about implantation bleeding here.

Hormonal changes

The pregnant body goes through many changes in a relatively short period. The hormone surges that occur throughout pregnancy cause an increase in blood flow to the reproductive system.

In some women, this may make the cervix especially sensitive. Irritating the cervix with sexual intercourse, sexual toys, or even a pelvic exam may cause bleeding, leading to brown discharge.

Ectopic pregnancy

A less common but serious cause of brown discharge during the first trimester of pregnancy is an ectopic pregnancy.

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus, such as in a fallopian tube. An ectopic pregnancy is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

Symptoms include varying degrees of pain and vaginal bleeding. Women may experience pain on one side of the stomach or in the tip of the shoulder, due to pressure on the nerves. Some will experience discomfort or difficulty using the toilet.

The fertilized egg cannot survive outside of the uterus, meaning that all ectopic pregnancies result in pregnancy loss. Without treatment, ectopic pregnancies can cause serious complications. Anyone who suspects an ectopic pregnancy should seek medical advice immediately.

Learn more about ectopic pregnancy here.

Later pregnancy

During the third trimester, brown discharge can indicate that labor is approaching or that there is a complication.

Bloody show

Sometimes, brown discharge may indicate that labor is near. If a woman experiences brown discharge in the last days before labor, it may be something known as the “bloody show.”

This is discharge tinged with pink, red, or brown blood, and it is a sign that labor will begin shortly.

Learn more about bloody show here.

Preterm labor

Spotting or bleeding that occurs later in the pregnancy, but before week 37, may also be an indicator of preterm labor. Other symptoms will also occur, such as:

  • backache
  • stomach cramps
  • regular contractions
  • pressure in the pelvis
  • water breaking

Anyone who may be experiencing preterm labor should seek medical advice immediately.

Placenta previa

Placenta previa occurs when part of the placenta partially or completely covers the cervix. In some women, this causes no symptoms, but others may experience various degrees of vaginal bleeding.

Placenta previa can cause delivery complications, so early diagnosis and treatment are essential.

Learn about placenta previa here.

Throughout pregnancy

Some causes of brown discharge can occur at any time during pregnancy.

Cervical polyps

Increased blood circulation around the cervix during pregnancy may cause growths called polyps to appear. As with cervical irritation, sexual play or pelvic exams may cause these cervical polyps to bleed.

Many doctors recommend not removing the polyps during pregnancy unless they cause severe discomfort or interfere with the pregnancy. One study notes that removing these polyps during pregnancy may increase the risk of preterm delivery or pregnancy loss.

Learn more about cervical polyps here.

Pregnancy loss

Brown discharge may also be a sign of pregnancy loss, or miscarriage, in some cases. Generally, this will not be the only symptom.

The brown discharge may progress to include more fresh blood, and it may turn to spotting or bleeding similar to that of menstruation.

Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • uterine contractions
  • a gush of watery clear-to-pink vaginal fluid
  • intense stomach cramps
  • tenderness
  • weight loss
  • passing thick clots or bloody discharge
  • sudden loss of pregnancy symptoms

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should contact their doctor.

Learn more about pregnancy symptoms here.

Some brown discharge with no other symptoms is common and usually not a cause for concern during pregnancy.

However, discharge with additional symptoms, such as pain, uterine spasms, or fever, may be signs of concerning conditions.

Anyone experiencing changes in their discharge, along with other troubling symptoms, should contact their doctor. The doctor can then treat any issues early on to prevent complications.

To diagnose any issues associated with brown discharge during pregnancy, doctors will first do a physical exam, taking note of any additional symptoms that the pregnant woman is experiencing.

They may then order various tests to check the health of the woman and fetus.

A pelvic exam may help identify signs of irritation that could be causing the discharge. The doctors may also take a swab of the discharge from the cervix to check for any infections or other issues.

Imaging tests such as ultrasounds can help identify other issues, including ectopic pregnancy, or simply ensure the health and viability of the fetus.

Treatment options will depend on the underlying cause of the discharge, the stage of pregnancy, and the health status of both the woman and the developing fetus.

Treatments for different issues may include:

  • antibiotics
  • avoiding sexual activity
  • the removal of fertilized eggs, in cases of ectopic pregnancy
  • tissue removal, after pregnancy loss
  • increased bed rest
  • cesarean delivery

A person should seek a diagnosis before attempting any treatment.

While some causes of brown vaginal discharge are normal, it is important to pay attention to other symptoms. Anyone experiencing concerning symptoms, such as stomach pain, fever, or very dark discharge, should see a doctor.

A thorough diagnosis may take time, but it is important to solve any underlying issues and ensure the health of the woman and fetus.