It’s normal to have vaginal discharge throughout the menstrual cycle. But if you notice brown discharge before your period, you may wonder what it means.
The answer isn’t straightforward, as several things can cause brown discharge. Most of the causes are no concern, while others require medical attention.
To help you determine if you should see a healthcare provider, this article will detail the various potential causes of brown discharge before your period. Then we’ll explain what normal discharge is and when to contact a doctor about brown vaginal discharge.
Is Brown Discharge Normal?
Brown discharge is usually a sign of old blood. After blood is exposed to oxygen, it typically turns darker red or brown. The uterus is a blood-rich environment, so especially before the uterine lining sheds before a regular period, it is common to notice small amounts of old blood in discharge.
Common Causes of Brown Discharge Before Period
The following different reasons for brownish discharge are not cause for concern.
Normal period flow
It takes some time for menstrual blood to leave the uterus, pass through the cervix, and show up as menstrual period flow. Light flow that starts a period may turn brown if it is exposed to oxygen during this journey. This can mix with vaginal discharge and appear as light brown discharge for 1-2 days before full period flow begins. Then, at the end of your period after the heavy flow ends, the rest of the menstrual flow may be lighter and more likely to have been exposed to air. This can also turn discharge a brownish color.
If you experience spotting around the middle of your cycle, this may mix with normal ovulation discharge. As the blood is exposed to oxygen, it can tinge the discharge brown. This should only be a small amount for 1-2 days.
As many as 30% of pregnant people experience light bleeding or brown spotting in the first trimester. While this can be normal, check with your OB/GYN.
The decade before your period completely stops is referred to as perimenopause. During this time, people with vaginas may still have periods, but they may become less regular and lighter due to decreasing estrogen levels. Sometimes this results in brown discharge instead of bright red period flow. It can also lead to spotting at other times in the cycle.
Some forms of birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), may lead to light spotting after implantation. Birth control pills that release progestins may also cause hormonal changes that lead to spotting, breakthrough bleeding, or discharge.
Even a Pap smear or pelvic exam that isn’t painful can lead to some light spotting hours or days after. Spotting may appear red, pink, or brown.
Vigorous penetrative sex can lead to light bleeding or spotting that takes 1-2 days to appear. During this time, the blood may be exposed to air and turn a brown color.
More Serious Causes of Brown Discharge
If brown vaginal discharge happens with other symptoms or changes, see your healthcare provider. Some potentially more serious causes of brown discharge include:
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
Due to imbalanced hormones, PCOS may cause irregular periods and spotting. This can result in brown discharge at the time of an expected period.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
An infection in the uterus, cervix, or vagina may cause brown discharge. STIs would often cause other symptoms such as painful urination, discharge with unpleasant odor, lower abdominal pain, fever, and pain during intercourse, however some STIs do not come with any symptoms, or discharge may be your only symptoms.
A bacterial infection such as bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, or anything else that causes irritation of the vagina can cause some brown discharge. Infections would also be accompanied by itching or pain, a change in discharge amount or consistency, or a change in odor. Non-infectious vaginitis can be caused by sexual activity, allergens, or irritants (like bubble bath), and typically causes itching or mild pain.
This occurs when a fertilized egg attaches outside of the uterus, such as in the fallopian tubes. Ectopic pregnancies can cause brown spotting as well as severe abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, and shoulder pain. They can lead to life-threatening health complications and require immediate medical treatment.
In rare cases, brown discharge can signal cervical cancer. Other common symptoms include bleeding between periods, painful intercourse, heavy periods, and unusual or unexpected weight loss.
Healthy Vaginal Discharge
Discharge is a normal part of the healthy maintenance of sexual and reproductive organs. The cervix and vagina produce mucus to clear bacteria and old cells. This protects from infection.
Normal discharge levels vary throughout the menstrual cycle as hormone levels shift. You may notice dry periods or periods with a lot more discharge. In particular, vaginal discharge increases around the time of ovulation and may be thinner, like egg whites, for several days.
Normal vaginal discharge is clear, but when exposed to oxygen or paired with menstrual flow, it can appear white, brown, or pink.
When to See a Medical Provider
If your vaginal discharge suddenly changes in volume not related to menstrual changes, or it develops a different color, smell, or texture (such as one like cottage cheese), speak to a healthcare provider. Some changes may be normal, but others may indicate infection.
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Association Between First-Trimester Vaginal Bleeding and Miscarriage. (2009).
Ectopic Pregnancy. (2022).
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. (2019).
Vaginal Bleeding Between Periods. (2022).
Vaginal Itching and Discharge—Adult and Adolescent. (2022).
Vaginal or Uterine Bleeding. (2022).