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STDWatch
Hannah Kingston

Jul 06, 20227 min read

What does it mean when you have brown discharge

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Vaginal discharge can change from one day to the next and while certain characteristics are perfectly normal, others could be a sign of underlying health problems. Understanding different types of discharge and their causes can help you identify when discharge is normal, or when it’s time to seek medical assistance.

Keep reading to learn more about what it means when you have brown vaginal discharge.

Causes of brown discharge

In most cases, brown discharge is related to bleeding — the discharge is actually oxidized blood. According to the University of California Santa Barbara, the hemoglobin in our blood oxidizes when it comes into contact with oxygen, which makes it turn dark red, brown, or even black.

Period blood

Brown blood spotting can be perfectly normal, especially if it's happening right before or after your period. During these times, it’s normal for your period flow to be much lighter and slower, which gives blood more time to oxidize before it exits your uterus.

In some cases, this type of discharge will be mixed with your regular vaginal discharge, making it look like brown and clear discharge, or brown cervical mucus. Certain additional signs, such as having a headache and brown discharge, could signal that your period is about to start.

Hormonal contraceptives

Bleeding is a common side effect of hormonal birth control methods, and in some cases, it can look like pink or brown discharge. This side effect is also known as breakthrough bleeding, and according to The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, it’s more common if you’ve been taking a hormonal contraceptive continuously for some time. Most cases of breakthrough bleeding become less frequent over time.

Pregnancy

In some cases, brown spotting can occur during pregnancy. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, bleeding during the first trimester of pregnancy is common and typically doesn’t signal a serious problem. But if you’re having a lot of brown discharge or spotting, it’s probably time to seek medical assistance just to be safe.

Additionally, a lot of brown discharge during the later stages of pregnancy could signal a problem. Causes of bleeding during pregnancy include:

  • Miscarriage or preterm labor
  • Infection
  • Early pregnancy loss
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Placental abruption
  • Placenta previa

If you’re experiencing a brown substance from your vagina during pregnancy, you should seek medical assistance to determine the cause, and keep you and your baby safe and healthy.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Some STDs can cause spotting and bleeding due to inflammation. STDs that cause bleeding include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Trichomoniasis

In many cases, STDs that cause brownish sticky discharge will also cause other symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the most common STD symptoms include:

  • Genital sores or bumps
  • Abnormal vaginal or penile discharge
  • Painful urination or intercourse
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Bleeding or spotting between periods or after intercourse
  • Fever
  • Skin rash

If you’re experiencing brown milky discharge or other symptoms of an STD, it’s very important to get tested. Thanks to at-home STD testing kits, you can get tested from the privacy of your own home.

Implantation bleeding

According to the American Pregnancy Association, implantation bleeding is a small amount of bleeding that can happen when a fertilized egg burrows itself into the uterine lining at the beginning of pregnancy. The resulting bleeding can look like red or pink blood, or even just a bit of slimy brown discharge when you wipe. Implantation bleeding typically occurs when you would expect your next period to start.

Other reproductive health problems:

There are many different conditions that can lead to spotting, continuous brown discharge, or random brown discharge. According to the Cleveland Clinic, causes of abnormal uterine bleeding include:

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Endometriosis
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Uterine polyps
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Perimenopause
  • Certain types of cancer

Brown discharge and diarrhea

In some cases, brown discharge may not be discharge at all. If you're wiping back-to-front instead of front-to-back after a bowel movement, you may find some brown staining in the toilet paper caused by feces — especially if you've had diarrhea recently. It's very important to wipe properly using a front-to-back motion. Wiping from your anus to your genitals can carry bacteria to your vagina, increasing the risk of genitourinary infections.

When to go to the doctor

As mentioned above, some causes of brown discharge are normal. But in other instances, brown colored discharge could be a sign that something's wrong with your health.

For example, if you’ve been bleeding brown blood for a month, it’s definitely a good idea to seek medical guidance. As mentioned above, there are many different conditions that could be causing constant brown spotting, so it’s possible that your doctor will order some tests and perform a physical examination in order to find the underlying issue. 

Frequently asked questions: Brown discharge

Can a UTI cause brown discharge?

Urinary tract infections can cause bloody urine. If you don’t wipe correctly, this blood could be left to oxidize and look like a brownish tan discharge later. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a UTI, such as painful urination and back pain in addition to brown discharge, you should take a urine test to rule out a UTI.

Can dehydration cause brown discharge?

No. Dehydration can cause dark urine, but it hasn’t been recorded as a cause of brown vaginal discharge.

Can stress cause brown discharge?

Stress can alter your hormones and lead to irregular, heavy, missed, or very light periods. A very light irregular period could look like brown discharge; however, you should go to the doctor to rule out other medical causes.

Can fibroids cause brown discharge?

Yes. Heavy or abnormal bleeding is one of the most common symptoms of fibroids. In some cases, spotting can look like bleeding brown blood between periods.

Sources

UCSB ScienceLine - scienceline.ucsb.edu

Oral contraceptives – skipping periods when taking the Pill - rch.org.au

Bleeding During Pregnancy - acog.org

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - mayoclinic.org

What is Implantation Bleeding? - americanpregnancy.org

Abnormal Uterine Bleeding - my.clevelandclinic.org


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