What is brown vaginal discharge?
January 3, 2023
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What is brown vaginal discharge?

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Vaginal discharge is normal and helps keep your vagina healthy and clean. The skin cells of the cervix and vagina produce discharge to remove old cells, protect against infection, and lubricate the vaginal tissues (Mayo Clinic). While changes in colour or texture of discharge are common, you may be curious or concerned about the cause. In this article you can read how to recognize brown vaginal discharge, what the causes can be, and what you can do about it.

Is brown vaginal discharge normal?

Vaginal discharge normally is white or clear, but can also sometimes be brown, yellow, or green in colour (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). While changes in the colour of your discharge can be worrying, they often resolve themselves on their own and are no cause for concern. Brown discharge is often caused by normal vaginal fluid mixed with blood. Discharge containing blood can also sometimes look pinkish or red.

Symptoms of brown vaginal discharge

Other than its colour, brown vaginal discharge often has a thicker consistency than regular discharge. It also can be accompanied by a number of other symptoms, such as abdominal pain, an unpleasant smelling vagina, foul-smelling discharge, itching of the vagina or fever. If brown discharge occurs without any other symptoms and goes away on its own, it’s probably no cause for concern. However, if you experience other symptoms or it doesn’t go away, there may be a problem that requires medical attention or treatment.

What can brown discharge mean?

Brown vaginal discharge can occur for several reasons, ranging from a routine part of the menstrual cycle to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Below you can read a summary of common causes of brown vaginal discharge.

Brown discharge from menstruation

During your period, your menstrual blood can range in color from brown to bright red. At the very beginning or end of your period, the blood may be darker in color or become brown-tinged discharge (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). Brown discharge around your period is no cause for concern and should go away on its own.

Brown discharge after sex

Brown discharge after sex can be caused by bleeding from tears or irritation to the vaginal tissue (NHS, 2021). This can happen immediately after or a few hours following intercourse, and usually only occurs in small quantities. While occasional bleeding after sex is normal, if it occurs repeatedly consider talking to your GP to rule out other possible causes.

Brown discharge from birth control

If you are on the contraceptive pill, brown discharge or “breakthrough bleeding” can occur between periods. This is because the pill affects the body’s natural hormone levels, which can cause irregular bleeding or blood-tinged vaginal discharge (Burnett, 2022). Breakthrough bleeding is relatively common, especially when first beginning the pill or if you accidentally miss a day. However, if the bleeding does not go away or is accompanied by other symptoms (such as an unpleasant vaginal odor, itching, or pelvic pain), see your doctor. 

Just like with the pill, IUDs can also cause breakthrough bleeding and brown vaginal discharge due to the hormones they release into the body (Planned Parenthood). This is most common in the first six months, and usually goes away with time.

Brown discharge from pregnancy

Brown discharge may also be a sign of implantation bleeding. Implantation bleeding occurs when a fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the uterus. Implantation bleeding usually occurs 10-14 days after conception and can be mistaken for a menstrual period, but is normally lighter and shorter (Mayo Clinic, 2022). If there is a possibility you may be pregnant and experience brown discharge, consider taking a pregnancy test.

Brown discharge due to polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects how the ovaries work. It can cause irregular periods, excess male hormones (androgens), and fluid-filled sacs on the ovaries to develop (NHS, 2022). Since PCOS can affect how often eggs are released from the ovaries (ovulation), menstrual periods may be farther apart than normal. The extended time between periods can cause brown vaginal discharge. If you are experiencing irregular periods or brown discharge from PCOS, your doctor may prescribe birth control or other medications to help regulate your menstrual cycle.

Brown vaginal discharge from sexually transmitted infections

Brown vaginal discharge can also be caused by an STI. In this case, the discharge is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, redness, and an unpleasant odor. You may also experience bleeding in between periods or lower abdominal pain. This occurs regularly with chlamydia and gonorrhea. While most STIs can be easily treated with antibiotics, a reliable diagnosis is first needed. Homed-IQ’s STI Test Comprehensive tests for 8 common STDs using a vaginal swab and a finger prick blood test. The tests are delivered in a discreet packaging and can be taken in privacy at home, without the intervention of a doctor. You will receive the laboratory certified test result within a few days.

Hygiene and brown vaginal discharge

Hygiene can also play a role in brown vaginal discharge. Good vaginal hygiene aims not to disturb its pH or balance of good bacteria in the vagina. Poor hygiene can disrupt this balance and can lead to infections and uncomfortable symptoms, such as unpleasant odors, irritation, and itching (Watson, 2019). It is important to keep your vagina clean while not disrupting its pH balance. You can do this by washing the vagina with lukewarm water and avoiding soaps and heavily scented products in the area. 

What should you do if you have brown discharge?

As you can see, there are many different potential causes of brown vaginal discharge. That is why it is difficult to determine for yourself what the cause is. Brown vaginal discharge is not something to worry about right away. However, if it is accompanied by other symptoms or lasts for several weeks or months, it may indicate an infection or medical condition that requires further attention.

Do you suspect that your brown vaginal discharge is caused by an STI? Get a reliable diagnosis using the STI Test Complete from Homed-IQ. This certified laboratory test checks for the most common bacterial and viral STIs, all from the comfort of home. Our standard STI tests for women are also certified and easy to use.

References

Burnett, T. (2022, December 7). Extended-cycle birth control pills: Is spotting common? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/birth-control/expert-answers/seasonale-side-effects/faq-20058109?reDate=07012023

Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 2). Brown Discharge: 4 Causes and What It Means. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/brown-vaginal-discharge/

Implantation bleeding: Common in early pregnancy? (2022, April 19). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/implantation-bleeding/faq-20058257

NHS website. (2021, November 18). What causes a woman to bleed after sex? nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/womens-health/what-causes-a-woman-to-bleed-after-sex/

NHS website. (2022, October 13). Polycystic ovary syndrome. nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/

Vaginal discharge. (2021, June 22). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825?reDate=07012023

Vaginal Discharge: Causes, Colors, What’s Normal & Treatment. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/4719-vaginal-discharge

Watson, S. (2019, July 11). Everything You Need to Know About Maintaining Your Vaginal pH Balance. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/vaginal-ph-balance

What are the side effects of IUDs? (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/iud/iud-side-effects

About the author

Lauren Dobischok

Lauren is a health scientist and science communicator living in the Netherlands. With a background in epidemiology, her goal is to create accurate scientific content that is easy to understand and empowers people to make informed decisions. Her favourite topics to discuss are public health, infectious diseases, and dispelling myths and misconceptions about health topics with research. Coming from Canada, Lauren prefers to spend her free time learning Dutch and exploring the interesting sights this small country has to offer!