It’s normal to have some discharge, even though it can be annoying and confusing at times. What’s going on? You’ve probably noticed that the characteristics of your discharge vary depending upon where you are in your menstrual cycle. Your cervix naturally produces small amounts of mucus, what you see as discharge, and this mucous can change in character depending on the time of the month.
Most discharge is clear or white in color, although the consistency changes over the course of your cycle. Around the middle of the month, you may notice your discharge becomes very clear and a bit stringier than usual. This type of discharge is most noticeable around the time of ovulation and is perfectly normal.
Some women become concerned when they see their secretions are darker than usual or brown in coloration. What does brown discharge mean, and should you be concerned if you have it?
Brown Discharge May Actually Be Spotting
If you’re like many women, you sometimes experience brown discharge towards the end of your menstrual cycle. Should you be concerned? As long as you’re having no other symptoms, this is typically not something to worry about. The brown “discharge” you see in your underwear and on the toilet tissue when you wipe is likely brown spotting or bleeding. The brown material you see is remnants of dried blood and tissue left over from your menstrual period. Think of it as your body’s final attempt at “cleaning house.”
Some women also experience brown spotting, or bleeding, just before their period begins. This is called pre-menstrual spotting and is usually related to changes in hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle. When you look in your underwear, you might mistake brown spotting for brown discharge.
Brown spotting can also show up mid-cycle, around the time you normally ovulate. This type of “ovulation bleeding” typically lasts for only a few hours and is caused by changes in hormones. Up to 30% of otherwise healthy women experience some degree of mid-cycle spotting at the time they ovulate. Another time some women experience brown spotting is during the early stage of pregnancy when a fertilized egg burrows into the wall of the uterus. This is referred to as “implantation bleeding.”
If you’re taking birth control pills and experience brown spotting, it probably means that your hormones are not balanced properly and your doctor may need to adjust your prescription. Women who have an intrauterine device inserted into their reproductive tract for birth control may also experience brown discharge or spotting during the first six months of wearing it.
Other Causes of Brown Discharge
Brown discharge isn’t always spotting or bleeding. Colored or brown discharge can sometimes be a sign of an infection. A variety of bacteria and parasites can infect tissues and cause a yellow, gray or light brown discharge. In some cases, brown discharge can be a symptom of an infection, like gonorrhea or syphilis, or an infection in reproductive tract called pelvic inflammatory disease. Less commonly, a persistent brown discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer.
When Should You Be Concerned about Brown Discharge?
Brown discharge due to spotting between periods usually doesn’t last long, at most a day or two before it disappears and your discharge again becomes clear or white. In most cases, you won’t experience other symptoms when you have brown spotting between periods, although some women experience mild abdominal discomfort that only lasts several hours when they have mid-cycle, ovulatory bleeding. If you have a persistent brown discharge or brown discharge with other symptoms, see your doctor to make sure you don’t have a vaginal or cervical infection.
Some symptoms you might experience if you have a cervical infection with itching, burning, itching or irritation, discharge that smells bad, abdominal discomfort, fever having to urinate frequently, pain with intercourse or burning when you urinate. If you have any of these symptoms, see your health care provider right away.
Most infections can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but it’s important to get tested to find out what type of infection you have and make sure that it’s properly treated. Infections in the cervix that aren’t promptly treated can lead to scarring of your reproductive organs and make it harder to get pregnant. When in doubt, see your doctor.
The Bottom Line
Brown discharge has a variety of causes, as discussed, and what you believe to be “discharge,” may actually be brown spotting between periods. When in doubt, it’s best to get checked out by your doctor, especially if you have a persistent, brown discharge or a dark discharge along with other symptoms. If you just have a small amount of brown spotting mid-cycle, just before a period or at the tail end of a period that goes away quickly, it’s probably nothing to worry about.