Brown discharge: what does it mean for my health?

You’re used to your vaginal discharge varying throughout your menstrual cycle. Sometimes it’s white and creamy, other times it’s translucent and a bit stretchy. However, you may occasionally notice brown discharge. What causes brown discharge, and what does it mean for your health?

What is brown discharge?

Brown discharge is the same as regular vaginal discharge (cervical mucus). The difference in colour is caused by traces of blood, which turns brown over time. This is why you may have brown discharge at the beginning and end of your menstrual cycle.

You may also have a bit of brown discharge in early pregnancy. This is called brown spotting. It’s nothing to be alarmed about, though it is a good idea to let your doctor know.

Do keep in mind that brown spotting isn’t necessarily a symptom of pregnancy. If you experience brown discharge outside of your regular menstruation, it could also be a symptom of something else.

Causes of brown discharge

First of all, it bears repeating: there are several perfectly normal reasons why your vaginal discharge may be different from what you usually experience:

  • Your menstrual cycle (including ovulation)
  • Pregnancy, breastfeeding
  • Sexual arousal
  • Changes in your personal hygiene routine or products

As you can see, brown discharge doesn’t necessarily have to be cause for alarm.

Changes in your vaginal discharge could also be a side effect of medication you’re taking, such as antibiotics, birth control pills and steroids. However, brown discharge can be a symptom of a health issue, such as the ones we describe below.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is an extremely rare cause of brown discharge. Moreover, brown discharge is usually not the only symptom of cervical cancer, occurring in combination with heavier periods, increased spotting, and pain during sex.

Ovarian cysts

Ovarian cysts are sacs of fluid found within the ovaries. These cysts are often benign, but can have a number of uncomfortable symptoms in addition to brown discharge: lower back ache, and pain during sex and menstruation. Ovarian cysts can only be detected using ultrasound.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is caused by a hormonal imbalance. In addition to brown spotting, symptoms include irregular or absent periods, weight gain, acne and additional hair growth.

Perimenopause

For women over 45, brown discharge can be an early indicator of menopause. Other telltale signs are hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings.

What should I do about brown discharge?

Mostly, brown discharge is nothing to worry about. However, it’s always good to keep track of your vaginal discharge. If you notice that brown discharge is occurring more often than usual, often follows sex, or is combined with a number of other symptoms, we advise getting in touch with your doctor.