What is brown vaginal discharge ?
Typically, brown vaginal discharge marks the presence of a brown liquid spotting in your underwear. Usually, this is just your period blood that is oxidized as it comes in contact with air and there is nothing to worry about.
But, at other times, it may indicate underlying health conditions. Read on to find out when it is normal and when you should be worried.
Different shades of brown vaginal discharge
Shades of this type of vaginal discharge vary and they are indicative of different things:
Light brown discharge - Usually, this is just clear or white vaginal discharge mixed with period blood and comes in the form of spotting or light menstrual bleeding.
Dark brown discharge - This type is most common around the time you are about to bleed. The colour comes from period blood oxidizing as it comes in contact with air.
- Near black discharge - More often than not, discharge black in colour is a sign of heavy menstrual bleeding. But, if you notice a strong smell accompanying it, or heavier than usual cramps, it could be a sign of a more severe health condition like cancer or an STD.
Different consistency of brown discharge
Along with different shades, brown vaginal discharge also varies in its consistency:
- Thin brown discharge - This is usually indicative of light spotting that may happen at the end of your period or arise from taking an emergency contraceptive pill.
- Thick or clumpy brown discharge - Depending on the day of your period, discharge consistency varies. Usually, at the start of your period or when you are about to bleed, the discharge is a combination of blood, mucus and endometrial cells, and is thick and rubbery in consistency.
Reasons for brown discharge
On most occasions, it is a very normal phenomenon and there is nothing to worry about. They may include:
When your period starts or ends: Usually, at the beginning or end of your period, the speed of the menstrual blood exiting your body is slower, so it gets oxidized while flowing out. It is also part of the vagina cleaning itself. During heavy flow, the speed is higher and so the colour of the blood is red. This type of brown discharge is nothing to worry about.
Due to hormonal contraception or contraceptive implants: When you begin hormonal contraception, the first months may consist of spotting. If there is little estrogen in the pills, your body will react to these low levels by shedding the endometrial wall in between periods. And, if the rate of the blood exiting your body is slower, it will turn brown upon oxidation.
Sometimes, when you use contraceptive methods like IUDs or other implants, progestin hormone is released in the body to prevent pregnancy. Your body may sometimes undergo brown discharge as it adjusts to the new contraceptive method.
Spotting during ovulation: Around 3% of people experience ovulation spotting around the middle phase of their cycle, which is when the ovary releases the egg. Along with egg white discharge and abdominal pain, one may experience brown discharge around this time.
Early pregnancy: As implantation occurs around 10 to 14 days post-fertilization, you may experience brown discharge in place of periods. In fact, it is completely normal and around 30% of pregnant people experience brown spotting in their first trimester. But, even though there is usually nothing to worry about, you should still consult a doctor just to make sure that everything is alright.
Lochia (post-birth period): After a person gives birth, it is normal to bleed for a period of four to six weeks. It may begin as a heavy flow that is red in colour, after a few days, it may become brownish in colour. This is also a completely normal phenomenon.
Perimenopause: This is the stage that marks the transition into menopause. During this time, there is a fluctuation in estrogen levels which disrupts your normal menstrual cycle and may be accompanied by brown discharge at the end of your period or even between periods.
Rough sex: Sometimes, having vigorous sex can irritate your vagina and cause bleeding. But, the blood may not exit the body in one go and take several days to exit your body slowly, during which time it can get oxidized and turn brown in colour.
Pelvic exam: Often, it is common to get a light discharge that is brown after you have gone through a pelvic examination. This indicates that you are more sensitive down there. Also, a pap smear test uses a cotton swab or soft brush to collect cervical cells, which can cause bleeding for the next few days, coming in the form of brown vaginal discharge.
When is brown discharge a cause for worry?
Like it’s normal in a lot of cases, sometimes, brown discharge can be a cause for worry. Some of these may include:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): Sometimes, brown discharge can occur as a symptom of a severe health condition like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is accompanied by other symptoms such as abdominal pain, fever, a foul smell associated with the discharge and a burning sensation while urinating.
- Hormonal imbalance: Sometimes, you may be suffering from hormonal imbalance in your body when your estrogen levels dip. This causes your uterine lining to break down at different intervals when you are not due to menstruate. Lower estrogen levels are usually normal before menopause or from using certain hormonal birth control pills, but sometimes they may indicate other health conditions and cause more symptoms like mood swings, urinary tract infections, weight gain, mood swings or depression.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): Ovulation is disrupted as a result of PCOS and instead of a proper menstrual flow, it can cause brown spotting and pain in your pelvis along with several other symptoms. You will need to visit a doctor if your brown discharge is a sign of PCOS or other ovarian cysts.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): Usually accompanied by a strong odour, pain during sex and a burning sensation when passing urine, brown discharge when you are not due to bleeding can be a sign of sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea or chlamydia. You may want to get tested if you have multiple sexual partners and have not used a condom during sex.
- A retained foreign object inside the body: Sometimes, if you have forgotten a foreign object inside your vagina like a tampon, condom, sex toy or vaginal contraceptive, your body may release a foul-smelling brown discharge. Contact your preferred health practitioner at the earliest.
Cervical or uterine cancer: Although only around 0.6% of women are affected by cervical cancer, sometimes brown discharge may be indicative of this. It is an unlikely scenario but if you experience pain during sex and bleeding or brown discharge afterwards, get examined.
Further, spotting or bleeding after sex or at other times once you have reached menopause is a common sign of endometrial cancer. If you experience other symptoms along with it like pelvic pain, weight loss, swelling in the legs, trouble urinating or defecating or a constant feeling of fatigue, get tested immediately.
- Endometriosis: In endometriosis, the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus instead of inside it. With no way for the blood to exit the body, the lining becomes trapped inside causing severe pain, fertility issues and brown vaginal discharge. You may want to get checked by a doctor if you find other symptoms like bloating, nausea, fatigue, diarrhoea or painful urination and sex.
- Ectopic pregnancy: This arises when a fertilized egg implants itself into the fallopian tubes, abdomen, cervix or ovary. In addition to brown discharge, one may experience dizziness, fainting, sharp pelvic pain and rectal pressure. If you experience any of these symptoms along with brown coloured vaginal discharge, contact a doctor immediately. If left untreated, your fallopian tube can burst and cause heavy internal bleeding.
- Miscarriage: According to a report, around 10 to 20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage. Along with cramping, dizziness or fainting, it is accompanied by brown or red fluid discharge from the vagina and requires immediate medical attention.
Uterine polyps: Irregular brown spotting may be caused by the presence of polyps (small tissue growth) in the uterus or cervix. Even though it’s mostly non-cancerous, you should consult a doctor.
How to Stop Brown Discharge & Treatment Options
Even though you can do little about brown discharge when it happens due to complications, normal discharge can be treated or prevented in some cases:
- Avoid vaginal douching - Washing the inside of your vagina with soap is not only unnecessary but also harmful. The vagina is self-cleaning and using soap may lead to bacterial vaginosis, causing brown discharge.
- Don’t use perfumed products down there - Perfume can disrupt the natural vaginal pH, leading to irritation, bacterial or yeast infections.
- Urinate after sex - This will help you to avoid urinary tract infection (UTI) which may lead to brown discharge.
Wear breathable, non-sweaty underwear - Tight underwear can trap sweat inside leading to bacterial growth causing brown discharge.
When should you see a doctor?
Occasional brown vaginal discharge is usually nothing to worry about. But, if it lasts for several weeks, happens more often after sex, is accompanied by a foul odour or happens after menopause, look for other symptoms that may include cramps and pain, itching, extremely heavy or light bleeding or pain while urinating. In these cases, immediately seek medical guidance.