- 11 causes of brown vaginal discharge
- 1) Slower flow of menstrual blood
- 2) Perimenopause and menopause
- 3) Using hormonal birth control
- 4) During ovulation or as a sign of early pregnancy
- 5) Sexually transmitted infections or diseases
- 6) Pelvic inflammatory disease
- 7) Cervical polyps
- 8) Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- 9) Cancer of the reproductive tract
- 10) Foreign objects in your genital tract
- 11) Trauma or injury to the genital tract
- How to reduce the risk of brown discharge
Vaginal discharge refers to any fluids that come out of the vagina.
Vaginal discharge is made of cells from the reproductive tract and mucus.
Having vaginal discharge is not usually a cause for concern.
After all, it is the body’s way of cleaning and protecting the vagina from infection.
The female body secretes this fluid to keep the genital tract moist and lubricated, which is important for vaginal health.
Sometimes, your vaginal discharge may appear different than it usually does.
You may be alarmed to find brown discharge staining your underwear.
This article will discuss the different causes of brown vaginal discharge, when brown discharge is normal, when you should be concerned about it, and when you should see a doctor for it.
11 causes of brown vaginal discharge
When we think of brown-colored vaginal discharge, we usually think of old or dried blood. However, brown discharge can sometimes be a sign of other more sinister causes.
Here are the top 10 reasons why your vaginal discharge is brown:
1) Slower flow of menstrual blood
A slower flow of menstrual blood can look brownish when it finally leaves your body.
This can happen at the beginning and towards the end of your period.
The blood that is shed during menstruation is from the lining of the uterus. And like blood from other parts of the body, period blood can oxidize.
Oxidized blood may appear dark red to brown. In the beginning, as well as at the end of your period, the blood will flow more slowly.
This means the blood has more time to oxidize while it exits your reproductive tract. What you get in the end is the appearance of a brownish discharge.
If you notice brown vaginal discharge at the beginning or end of your period, it’s generally normal.
However, if you experience other bothersome symptoms such as pain, itching, a burning sensation, or foul-smelling discharge, you should consult your doctor.
2) Perimenopause and menopause
Perimenopause is the stage before you reach menopause. Perimenopause is associated with a significant amount of changes in your hormones.
According to studies, women may experience perimenopause as early as 45 years old, and this transition to menopause may last 4 to 8 years.
Symptoms of perimenopause and menopause include:
- Irregular menses (including spotting or brown discharge)
- Hot flashes
- Poor sleep quality and sleep disturbances
- Mood changes
- Vaginal dryness
If the above symptoms are interfering with your daily activities, you should consult your doctor to help you cope with them.
3) Using hormonal birth control
Starting or stopping certain birth control that contains hormones can cause breakthrough bleeding.
Breakthrough bleeding often manifests as brown vaginal discharge, especially if the bleeding is light.
Breakthrough bleeding should come and go after 3 months of starting birth control. Some factors influencing the length and amount of breakthrough bleeding are:
- The type of hormonal birth control you are taking
- How much estrogen/hormones they contain
- Not taking the pills consistently/at the correct time
If breakthrough bleeding or brown discharge is persistent (more than 3 months) or disturbs your daily activity, you should consult your doctor.
4) During ovulation or as a sign of early pregnancy
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), light bleeding or spotting can happen in about 15 to 25% of women during the first trimester.
The first trimester refers to the first 3 months or 12 weeks of pregnancy. During this time, several events can contribute to brownish vaginal discharge.
|Ovulation happens in the middle of your menstrual cycle when an egg(s) is released from your ovaries. During ovulation, you may experience spotting, which is usually mixed with thin cervical fluids.
The discharge may appear light pink, red, or even brown. It should only last one or two days.
|During implantation, the fertilized egg buries itself into the lining of your uterus. This may lead to some breakdown of blood vessels.
As a result, you may experience brown discharge consisting of old blood. However, this light bleeding or spotting should last only a few days, unlike your regular period.
If you have brown discharge with no period or a skipped period, this could be a sign of pregnancy, but it’s not definitive.
If you suspect you might be pregnant due to unusual discharge, take a pregnancy test at home or consult your doctor for confirmation.
You should consult your doctor if you are experiencing bleeding later in your pregnancy.
5) Sexually transmitted infections or diseases
According to recent data, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) affect millions of Americans each year, and cases continue to rise over time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that cases have increased by 7% from the year 2017 to 2021.
STDs, like chlamydia or gonorrhea, can cause brown discharge. Though, they are often associated with other colors, such as green or yellow.
If you suspect that your brownish discharge may be due to STIs, you should consult your doctor immediately.
In the meantime, you should abstain from sexual activities with your partner(s) until you are fully treated.
After treatment, it is important to continue practicing safe sex until you (and your partner) are fully treated.
If you have a new partner or multiple partners, it is important that everyone is screened for STDs to prevent reinfection.
6) Pelvic inflammatory disease
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive organs, usually caused by STDs.
It can be considered a complication of STD, though it can also occur without a sexually transmitted infection.
Symptoms of PID include:
- Brown vaginal discharge
- Pain in your lower abdomen
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Painful urination
It is important to seek medical attention if you suspect that you have PID.
7) Cervical polyps
Cervical polyps are usually benign abnormal growths on the cervix. These polyps can cause brown discharge, especially after sexual intercourse.
Benign cervical polyps usually occur during the reproductive years (especially after 20 years old).
These polyps come in various shapes and sizes. However, sometimes, cervical polyps can be malignant (cancerous).
Malignant polyps make up a rare 0.2 to 1.5% of the cases and are more likely to happen in postmenopausal women.
Other symptoms associated with cervical polyps include:
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Spotting and vaginal discharge
- Postmenopausal bleeding
If the polyps are causing symptoms, they can be removed in your doctor’s office. This procedure is called a polypectomy.
If the polyp is very large, you may need to undergo the procedure in a surgical center or operating room with anesthesia.
After removing the polyp, your doctor will send the sample for a biopsy to exclude cancer.
If you think you may have cervical polyps, you should get it checked out by your doctor.
8) Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects almost 8 to 13% of premenopausal women.
PCOS can cause irregular and light menses as a result of hormonal imbalances. This may appear as brownish discharge or spotting.
If you suspect that you may have PCOS, you should consult your doctor.
Other health issues that are linked to hormonal imbalances and may cause irregular or light menses include:
- Hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism
9) Cancer of the reproductive tract
Brown discharge or spotting can sometimes be a form of abnormal bleeding. Brown discharge can sometimes be associated with conditions like cervical or endometrial cancer, but it’s important to consider other symptoms and consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Other signs that are associated with cervical or endometrial cancer include:
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Difficulty in passing urine
- Painful urination
- Pelvic pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Heavy or prolonged periods
- Bleeding between periods
- Unintentional or unexplained weight loss
Early detection and treatment are crucial for improving the prognosis of cancers. The treatment is dependent on the stage, progression, and your underlying health status.
If you suspect that you may have cervical or endometrial cancer, you should consult your doctor.
Regular pap smears or pap tests are important for cervical cancer screening, and you should consult your doctor to determine the appropriate screening schedule for you.
Pap smears can help reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
You can discuss getting pap smears with your doctor, especially if you are at risk of getting cervical cancer or high-risk HPV infection. You should consult your doctor to evaluate your risks.
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10) Foreign objects in your genital tract
Any foreign objects that are retained in your genital tract, whether purposely or accidentally, may cause brown discharge.
Foreign objects refer to anything that is not native to the body, such as:
- Contraceptive devices such as diaphragms, cervical caps, rings, and condoms
- Vaginal pessaries
- Objects used in foreplay
Your body will respond to foreign objects by producing a brownish discharge, often associated with a foul odor and itching, discomfort, or pain.
This could also be due to the fact that the retained object has introduced an infection to the vagina.
11) Trauma or injury to the genital tract
Trauma or injury to the genital tract can also lead to brown discharge. This can happen due to certain gynecological procedures where your doctor needs to insert an instrument or a device into your genital tract.
In these cases, you may experience light bleeding, which looks like a brownish discharge.
However, if you notice any foul-smelling brown discharge or heavier or prolonged bleeding, you should see a doctor immediately.
Other causes of trauma to the genital tract include sexual abuse. If you or anyone you know has been abused, causing trauma or injuries to the genital or urinary tract, you can contact the 24/7 hotline provided by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
- Or visit their website for more information: https://www.rainn.org/resources
How to reduce the risk of brown discharge
Here are several ways you can stop or prevent brown vaginal discharge. Keep in mind that some of these ways may not apply, depending on the underlying cause of the brown vaginal discharge.
If you are having persistent brown vaginal discharge, especially if accompanied by other worrying symptoms, you should consult your doctor.
1) Avoid or stop smoking
Studies have shown that brown discharge happens more commonly among women who smoke.
Tobacco use has been linked to lower estrogen levels and more incidences of abnormal bleeding.
2) Practice safe sex with the use of condoms
Aside from abstinence, male latex condoms are the best protection against STDs.
When used correctly and consistently, male latex condoms are very effective in protecting you against STDs, which can cause brown discharge and many other serious complications.
3) Discuss alternative forms of contraception with your doctor
If your current birth control method is causing persistent brown discharge, you can discuss other contraception methods with your doctor.
Make sure to ask your doctor for potential side effects of different forms of birth control.
Alternatively, your doctor may offer you treatment options to reduce the brown discharge, such as NSAIDs or estrogen supplements.
4) Avoid douching
Douching can introduce bacteria and other germs into your genital tract. This increases the risk of developing infections and PID.
5) Wear cotton/breathable underwear
Synthetic, tight, or restrictive underwear such as Lycra and thongs may promote infection of the genitalia.
You should opt for light and breathable underwear. You should also change your underwear daily.
6) Rinse your genital area with clean water and pat dry after toileting
Promoting good vaginal hygiene can prevent infections. This can reduce the incidences of brown discharges.
7) Adopt a healthy diet and exercise regularly
Generally, practicing a healthy lifestyle can reduce stress and regulate your hormones. In managing PCOS, maintaining a healthy weight by eating well and exercising can also help in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Is brownish discharge normal?
Most times, brown-colored vaginal discharge is normal. Most people experience brown vaginal discharge during the start or at the end of their period as oxidized blood leaves the body.
Other times, brown discharge happens as a result of hormonal changes in your body.
What does normal vagina discharge look like?
Normal vaginal discharge should:
- Look clear or milky-white (it may turn yellowish when dried)
- Not have a strong or unpleasant odor
- Not cause itching/discomfort/burning sensation
In premenopausal women, or women who have not reached menopause, it is normal to have white or clear, mucus-like vaginal discharge.
The amount and consistency may vary throughout your menstrual cycle. This may vary in different women.
Premenopausal women usually have about a teaspoon (2 to 5 ml) of vaginal discharge a day. Since the amount of vaginal discharge responds to the level of estrogen in the body, menopausal women (who have lower levels of estrogen) will produce less vaginal discharge.
When to worry about dark vaginal discharge
While it is mostly normal to have brownish vaginal discharge, you should start worrying when it is associated with:
- Missed periods
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
- Pain with sexual intercourse or urination
- Itching or burning sensation around your genital region
- Redness, burning, soreness, or swelling of the skin around your genital region
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Blood-tinged vaginal discharge
- Loss of weight or loss of appetite
- Fatigue and weakness
- Leg pain and/or swelling
- Any other symptoms which disturb your daily activities.
When to see a doctor for brown discharge
If you’re experiencing any symptoms that are bothering you, you should consult your doctor.
Here are some questions your doctor may ask you:
- When was your last menstrual period?
- Do you have pain in the back, abdomen, or pelvis?
- Have you had any changes in your period?
- Have you experienced any loss of appetite or weight?
- Do you have a new sexual partner?
- Do you have multiple sexual partners?
- Do you take any medications (prescription, herbal, nonprescription)?
- Have you recently used pads, tampons, douches, feminine hygiene products, lubricants?
Brown vaginal discharge can be caused by many things. Some of the benign conditions that can cause brown discharge are menstruation, pregnancy, PCOS, and the use of hormonal birth control.
On the other hand, infections, PID, and cancers are examples of sinister underlying causes of brown discharge.
Regardless, you should always be aware of the other associated symptoms that warrant a visit to your doctor’s office, such as pain, itching, discomfort, and foul-smelling discharge.
Other symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, reduced appetite, and fever can also indicate a more serious cause.
Many of the causes of brown discharge can be treated. It is important to notice the warning signs so that treatment can be started early.
If you are unsure of what your vaginal discharge could mean or if you experience any bothersome symptoms, you should consult your doctor.