Brown discharge during pregnancy is normal, especially in scant amounts. It can occur in the first trimester and can last for up to 3 days.
However, when brown discharge is accompanied by other symptoms like pelvic pain, vaginal heaviness, pain or burning when urinating, fever, or chills, it may be a sign of an infection, ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage.
If you have other symptoms in addition to brown discharge, you should see a doctor for assessment. The doctor will order testing to identify the underlying cause and initiate treatment as necessary to prevent complications for both the mom and baby.
What causes brown discharge during pregnancy?
Brown discharge can be noted during pregnancy for the following reasons:
1. Normal pregnancy-related changes
Scant amounts of brown discharge that are watery or jelly-like are common, especially at the beginning of pregnancy. This occurs due to changes in vaginal pH, which can decrease vaginal discharge. These changes may last for 2 or 3 days.
It is also possible to notice changes after physical activity, like going to the gym, climbing stairs, or carrying heavy groceries.
What to do: Brown discharge in small amounts is considered to be normal and no treatment is required. However, if discharge is heavy, lasts for longer than 3 days, or if you notice other symptoms like vaginal itching, abdominal pain or cramping, you should see a gynecologist for assessment and to initiate treatment as necessary.
Some sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea or chlamydia, can cause brown discharge. It is typically noted following unprotected sex, and can occur with other symptoms like discharge with foul odor, pain or burning with urination, pelvic pain and bleeding during sex. Learn more about the most common STIs and how symptoms can vary.
What to do: In this case, you should see a gynecologist for treatment, which will depend on the infection diagnosed. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics like ceftriaxone, doxycycline or azithromycin. You should disclose your diagnosis to your sexual partner, so that they can be tested, even if they do not present with any symptoms.
Urinary tract infections can cause brown discharge during pregnancy. They often occur with other symptoms, like bladder heaviness, general malaise, pain or burning with urination, urinary frequency, urinary urgency, inability to urinate or completely empty the bladder.
If you think you may have UTI symptoms, check out our online symptoms checker to assess your risk for infection.
What to do: If you suspect you may have a UTI, you should see a doctor for assessment and urine testing to confirm a diagnosis. If confirmed, the doctor may prescribe a pregnancy-safe antibiotic.
4. Ectopic pregnancy
Ectopic pregnancy is a situation in which the embryo implants and develops outside of the uterus. This can occur in the fallopian tubes, varies, abdominal cavity or cervix, leading to symptoms like intense abdominal pain, vaginal heaviness, pain during uterine palpation or pelvic exams, brown discharge or breakthrough bleeding.
Learn more about what causes an ectopic pregnancy and the symptoms that may occur.
What to do: Is it essential to consult a gynecologist, who will likely order an ultrasound to investigate where the implantation occurred and evaluate whether continuing pregnancy will pose a risk for the mother or baby.
Brown discharge during pregnancy can also be a sign of miscarriage, especially if it is noted within the first 20 weeks of gestation. A miscarriage can cause symptoms like fever and chills, strong abdominal pain, vagina fluid loss that is odorless and colorless, vaginal clots and lack of fetal movements for over 5 hours. Read about miscarriage symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore.
What to do: If you notice any symptoms of a miscarriage, you should seek medical assistance immediately. The doctor will order testing to confirm whether you are experiencing a miscarriage and initiate treatment. Treatment usually involves medication and rest to help with expulsion of fetal tissue. Tissue and remnants that are confirmed to remain within the uterus will usually be removed with a D&C procedure.
6. Mild cervical trauma
During pregnancy, cervical tissue and surrounding tissue becomes more vascular, which increases your risk for bleeding. A very mild cervical trauma, like sex or pelvic exam, can cause a very minor cervical injury that can lead to brown discharge. This is not a clinical significant finding that requires urgent assessment.
What to do: Generally, treatment is not necessary. However if discharge persists or increases, you should consult your doctor for assessment and treatment as indicated.
When is brown vaginal normal?
Small amounts of brown discharge that ranges from fluid to mucus-like consistency is common, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy. It is also normal to have some dark discharge following sexual intercourse.
Symptoms that can accompany brown discharge and shouldn’t be ignored include vaginal itching, foul odor and cramping. These signs don’t always indicate something serious, but it is better to be cautious and to contact your doctor.
Dark brown discharge resembling coffee grounds may indicate loss of old blood, and should be reported immediately to the obstetrician. If you are nearing the end of pregnancy, and notice that discharge is heavy and light brown with a few streaks of blood, it may be a mucus plug, indicating that you will go into labor soon.
If an infection is confirmed, treatment can be started using medication like antifungals (for treatment of a yeast infection) or antibiotics (for treatment of a sexually transmitted infection). However, if an infection has been ruled out, your doctor may just recommend rest and avoidance of any strenuous activity.
Regardless of the cause, you can help to prevent the occurrence of brown discharge by:
- Avoiding the use of soaps with moisturizing cream or antibacterial/antifungal agents
- Performing vaginal douching only at the advice of your gynecologist
- Ensuring underwear fabric is light, loose and made of cotton
- Avoiding use of softeners or bleach on underwear
- Washing underwear with a mild soap and water
- Avoiding use of panty liners
- Ensuring you do not wash the genital area more than twice a day, as this can decrease the natural-occurring bacteria that helps to protect you from infection
Is brown discharge a sign of pregnancy?
Brown discharge may be a sign of pregnancy, but it isn’t always the case. The color of menstrual blood can vary depending on the cycle day and on the woman's flow. For example, menstrual flow usually slows in the last days of menstruation, and because it takes longer for the blood to travel, it can become more concentrated and darker in color. Read more about brown discharge before a period and what it means.
Even if your period is late, although your may suspect pregnancy, dark discharge may indicate early or incomplete shedding of the endometrium (which lines the uterus). Regardless, a thorough examination by your doctor is recommended. Understand what brown discharge can mean and what you should do.