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Brown discharge: what does it mean and what to do

Brown vaginal discharge is normal after your period because blood clots usually form a few days after it ends, and it is also normal after intimate contact or due to irritation of the walls of the vagina, especially during menstruation or pregnancy.

However, when the brown discharge lasts for more than 3 days, it may also indicate vaginal infections, such as trichomoniasis, which appear especially when the vaginal pH balance is altered, for example after the frequent use of intimate washes.

 Brown discharge: what does it mean and what to do

When is brownish vaginal discharge normal?

Brown discharge is normal in the following situations:

  • During adolescence;
  • After intimate contact during pregnancy;
  • In the first few days after menstruation;
  • Because of hormonal changes;
  • Changes in the contraceptive method.

However, if there is a lot of discharge or if it lasts for more than 4 days, go to a gynecologist to start the appropriate treatment.

5 diseases that can cause brown discharge

Some of the possible causes of brown vaginal discharge include irritation of the cervix, pelvic inflammatory disease, or ovarian cyst. See more causes and how to treat each of these diseases.

1. Cervix irritation

The cervix is a very sensitive area and some normal situations, such as the pap test or frequent sexual contact, may cause this symptom.

What to do: no specific treatment is necessary, because there is very little discharge and no other symptoms. Keeping the area clean and dry may be enough to control this discharge in less than 2 days. However, it is important not to have intimate contact until the discharge has disappeared.

2. Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease refers to an inflammation in a woman's internal genitalia, such as endometritis, salpingitis, bacterial vaginosis, or inflammation of the ovaries. These situations can cause dark vaginal discharge, pelvic pain and discomfort during intimate contact, which often appears during or after menstruation, or a few days or weeks after being contaminated with an STD.

What to do: after doing tests to identify what is causing this inflammatory disease, the gynecologist may indicate the use of oral antibiotics or an ointment to be applied in the vagina. Anti-inflammatory drugs and medications for fever may also be recommended. If there is no improvement in the symptoms within 3 days, the doctor can replace the medications with others. Intimate contact is not allowed until you finish the treatment, as these diseases are usually transmitted sexually.

3. Ovarian cyst 

Ovarian cysts can cause uterine bleeding before or after menstruation, and this mixed with the woman's natural secretions can come out as a brown discharge, but there are often other symptoms, such as pain during ovulation or during or after sexual intercourse, vaginal bleeding which is not part of the menstruation, weight gain and difficulty in getting pregnant.

What to do: specific treatment isn’t always necessary, because cysts in the ovaries are normal in young women, but the gynecologist may recommend the contraceptive pill. In more severe cases, the ovary may need to be removed to prevent further complications such as torsion of the ovary or cancer. 

4. Polycystic ovarian syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome can cause dark discharge because of the presence of uterine blood, as well as other symptoms such as irregular menstruation, too much thick hair and acne.

What to do: treatment can be done with the use of the specific contraceptive pill recommended by the gynecologist to regulate menstruation and control hormonal irregularities, because not all contraceptive pills are suitable. 

5. Uterine cancer

Uterine cancer can cause brown vaginal discharge, as well as other symptoms such as bleeding before, during or after menstruation, and pain in the pelvic area after intercourse, for example.

What to do: if you suspect something isn't right, you should go to your gynecologist for tests, such as the PAP test and colposcopy, so that cancer can be ruled out or, if it is cancer, to start the most appropriate treatment, which may be conization, brachytherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery to remove the uterus, depending on the stage of your tumor.

 Brown discharge: what does it mean and what to do

Can brown discharge be a sign of pregnancy?

Usually, brown discharges aren’t a sign of pregnancy, because the woman generally has a small amount of pinkish discharge in the beginning of her pregnancy which can indicate that the embryo has attached itself into the lining of the uterus.

However, if a pregnant woman has a dark fluid similar to menstruation and brown discharge, this may indicate blood loss through the vagina and should be seen by the obstetrician, especially if it has a foul smell or other symptoms associated to it, such as abdominal pain, itching or heavy bleeding. This change may indicate, among other possibilities, ectopic pregnancy. 

When to go to a gynecologist

Go to a gynecologist when the brown vaginal discharge:

  • Lasts more than 3 days;
  • Is accompanied by other symptoms such as abdominal pain, foul smell or itching;
  • Occurs with bouts of bright red bleeding.

In these cases, the doctor will diagnose the problem by examining the discharge and inserting the vaginal speculum to check the inside of the vagina to then recommend the appropriate treatment.

How to prevent vaginal discharge

To prevent dark vaginal discharge, avoid using intimate washes and wash the outside of the vagina during bathing or after intimate contact every day. The panties should preferably be cotton so the area is always drier, and shorts and tight jeans should also be avoided because they don’t let the area breathe, increasing perspiration and the spread of micro-organisms that cause infections.

Bibliography >

  • 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 27 Nov 2019
  • 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 27 Nov 2019
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