Brown discharge usually happens at the beginning or end of menstruation due to hormonal changes that happen during this time. However, brown discharge can also occur prior to menstruation, as a result of ovulation, vigorous sexual activity or after a gynecological exam, like a pap test.

The presence of brown discharge before a period can also be a sign of a more serious situation that requires treatment, like pelvic inflammatory disease, a sexually transmitted infection, or polycystic ovarian syndrome.

If your brown discharge occurs with other symptoms, like general malaise, fever, weight gain, new acne, pressure in the abdomen, pain with urination or bleeding during sex, you should see your doctor assessment to identify the cause of this discharge. He or she will be able to initiate the most appropriate treatment.

The most common causes of brown discharge before a period are:

1. Ovulation

Some women may have some spotting during ovulation, which occurs about 14 days after menstruation. Bleeding from ovulation usually lasts about 2 days and is characterized by scant amounts of brown, pink or red discharge noted on the underwear or with wiping. Learn more about common symptoms of ovulation.

What to do: In most cases, it is not necessary to treat bleeding during ovulation, as this is a normal occurrence that happens with hormonal changes. However, if bleeding lasts for longer than 2 days, is heavy, or occurs with pain, you should see your doctor for assessment. Use our ovulation calculator to determine when your ovulation period occurs. 

Be sure to check out our article on ovulation discharge so that you know what to expect the next time you ovulate.

2. Implantation

Implantation occurs when a fertilized egg lodges itself into the uterine wall, marking the beginning of pregnancy. It can cause small amounts of brown or red bleeding in some women and can last for up to 3 days. See what other symptoms can occur with implantation bleeding.

What to do: Brown discharge that occurs with light cramping and a heavy sensation in the stomach may be associated with pregnancy if it happens about 1 to 2 weeks after unprotected sex. You can complete a pregnancy test to confirm a pregnancy. Read more about when and how to take a pregnancy test.

3. Foreign objects

The presence of foreign objects in the vagina can also cause brown discharge, especially if left inside for too long. Some examples include tampons, female condoms, absorbent sponges and some contraceptives, like a diaphragm or vaginal ring. Leaving objects inside for longer than indicated can also increase your risk for infection and vaginal inflammation.

What to do: It is important for tampons and absorbent sponges to be changes regularly to prevent vaginal inflammation or infection. In addition, female condoms should be removed immediately after sex. If brown discharge is related to contraceptive use, you should see your doctor to discuss the possibility of alternative methods.

4. After a vaginal exam

Some women may have light brown discharge following vaginal exams, especially after a pap test or a colposcopy.

What to do: Because this is a normal finding, no further treatment is requires. If the discharge does not resolve within one day or if you have other symptoms, you should follow-up with your doctor.

5. Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease is characterized by swelling that starts in the vagina and spreads to the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. Common symptoms include brown discharge that may have a foul odor, pain during sex, abdominal pain and fever.

This condition occurs due to the presence of bacteria that was left untreated or not treated correctly.

What to do: It is crucial that you see a doctor for assessment as soon as possible. The doctor will likely order testing to confirm the presence of pelvic inflammatory disease and to evaluate which stage this disease has reached. Generally, this condition is treated with antibiotics, in accordance with the infectious agent causing the disease. 

6. Sexually-transmitted infection

Some sexually-transmitted infections can present with symptoms like brown discharge, pelvic pain, burning with urination, pain during sex or fever. Read more about the most common STIs and how they are treated. 

What to do: If you notice brown discharge a few days after unprotected sex, you should see your doctor for STI testing. If an STI is confirmed, treatment should be started promptly, while the infection is in its early stages. Treatment will depend on the type of infection present, and can involve the use of antibiotics or antivirals, taken orally or applied topically.

You should advise your sexual partner to also get treated, even if they do not have any signs or symptoms. This can help to prevent reinfection or spread to others. Treatment should be followed as instructed by your doctor, even if your symptoms improve.

7. Polycystic ovarian syndrome

Polycystic ovarian syndrome, also known as PCOS, is characterized by changes to hormones that can lead to the appearance of brown discharge. Many women with PCOS also experience oily skin, acne, weight gain, hair loss and difficulty getting pregnant.

What to do: It is important for you to see a gynecologist to evaluate your symptoms. Treatment is usually aimed at relieving symptoms and can involve the use of contraceptives. Women who have large ovarian cysts as a result may require surgical removal. Learn more about how ovarian cysts are treated.

8. Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is largely associated with brown discharge that may have a foul odor, constant abdominal pain, frequent urge to urinate, weight loss with no apparent cause, and lower abdominal pressure.

What to do: If you notice any of the above signs and symptoms of cervical cancer, you should see a doctor for a pap test and colposcopy with biopsy. That way, diagnosis can be confirmed and treatment can be initiated.

Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the cancer staging and the general health status of the woman. Many doctors can use a combination of approaches, like surgical removal, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

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Updated by Tua Saude editing team, on July of 2022.

References

  • THE INTERNATIONAL UNION AGAINST SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS. 2011 European (IUSTI/WHO) Guideline on the Management of Vaginal Discharge. 2011. Available on: <https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/microbiology/diagnostic-tests/atoz/documents/discharge.pdf>. Access in 22 Nov 2021
  • NHS. Investigation and Management of Vaginal Discharge in Adult Women. 2014. Available on: <https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/microbiology/diagnostic-tests/atoz/documents/discharge.pdf>. Access in 22 Nov 2021
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