Vaginal discharge is perfectly natural. It’s the body’s way of helping to keep the vagina clean and protected from infections. This can also be related to your period, hormonal changes, or certain conditions affecting the uterus and ovaries.

Vaginal discharge is perfectly natural. It’s the body’s way of helping to keep the vagina clean and protected from infections. While brown discharge may look alarming, it isn’t always a reason to worry.

You may see this color throughout your cycle, usually around the time of menstruation. Why? When blood is exposed to the air, it oxidizes. This can cause it to appear light or dark brown in color.

But other symptoms, such as a strong smell, can be a sign of an underlying issue.

While brown discharge can be a period-related sign, it can also be caused by other hormonal changes and conditions affecting the uterus and ovaries.

Here’s a look at the most common causes.

Your menstrual flow is generally slower at the beginning and end of your period.

When blood leaves the body quickly, it’s usually a shade of red. When the flow slows, the blood has time to oxidize, causing it to turn brown.

You may even notice black discharge if your period is particularly heavy.

Other times, brown discharge may signal a hormonal imbalance.

Estrogen helps stabilize the endometrial (uterine) lining. Too little estrogen circulating means the lining may break down at different points throughout your cycle.

As a result, you may experience brown spotting or other unusual bleeding.

Low estrogen may also lead to:

A healthcare professional will be able to advise on treatment, which usually comes in the form of hormone therapy.

Hormonal contraception, like birth control pills and IUDs, may lead to spotting in the first months of use as your body adjusts to the hormonal changes.

Breakthrough bleeding is more common if your contraceptive contains less than 35 micrograms of estrogen or no estrogen at all.

If there’s too little estrogen in your body, your uterine wall may shed its lining between periods. And if this lining takes a while to leave the body, it may appear brown.

If your spotting continues for more than 3 months, consider talking with a healthcare professional about changing birth control methods. A contraceptive with more estrogen may help stop the spotting.

Similarly, if you forget to take your pill for a few days, you may experience temporary spotting.

A small number of people — around 3% of participants in a 2012 study — experience ovulation spotting at the midpoint of their menstrual cycles. This is when an egg is released from the ovaries.

Estrogen levels are high at this point and subsequently drop, which can trigger spotting. The color may range from red to pink to brown and may also be mixed with clear discharge.

Other symptoms of ovulation include:

  • discharge that has an egg white consistency
  • low abdominal pain (Mittelschmerz)
  • a change in basal body temperature

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled pockets or sacs that develop in or on an ovary.

These generally aren’t a cause for concern. A functional cyst, for example, can develop when the follicle that released an egg doesn’t shrink back to size after ovulation or when an egg fails to release. It may not cause any symptoms and go away on its own after a few months.

Sometimes, the cyst doesn’t resolve and may grow larger. If this happens, it may cause anything from brown spotting to feelings of pain or heaviness in your pelvis.

Other cysts include endometriomas (also known as chocolate cysts), which contain old tissue and blood. Dermoid cysts form from ovarian cells and eggs and may be filled with the likes of skin, teeth, hair, or fat.

Cysts of any type that continue to grow risk rupturing or twisting the ovary.

If you think you may have a cyst, see a healthcare professional. If they do find a cyst, they may ask to see you again in a few months to check that it’s gotten smaller.

Sometimes, they might recommend birth control pills to prevent ovulation and more cysts from forming. In some cases, you may need surgery — particularly if the cyst continues to grow, causes continual discomfort, or may be to be cancerous.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may lead to brown spotting or bleeding.

Some infections, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, may not cause symptoms in the early stages.

In time, possible symptoms include pain with urination, pelvic pressure, spotting between periods, or vaginal discharge that’s different in color or smell from your usual discharge.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is another possible infection that isn’t transmitted by sexual contact, but it can be triggered by sex and put you at a higher risk of getting an STI.

Instead, it’s caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that can lead to changes in your discharge’s texture, color, or smell. Some people notice vaginal discharge with a fishy smell that looks thin and gray, while others have no symptoms.

Talking with a healthcare professional if you suspect you have an STI or other infection is important. They will diagnose the specific infection and prescribe antibiotics or antifungal medication.

STIs that are left untreated can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Heavy brown discharge with a strong smell may be seen along with pelvic pain, discomfort during sex, and pain when urinating.

PID can affect fertility levels and lead to chronic pain, but it typically responds well to antibiotics.

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows in places outside of the uterus, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Without a way to exit the body when it is shed, the tissue becomes trapped and may cause severe pain, brown discharge, and fertility issues.

Other symptoms may include:

Endometriosis is a chronic condition without a cure. But you can manage symptoms with medication, hormone therapy, or surgery to remove areas of tissue.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition that causes the body to produce higher levels of androgen hormones.

This can lead to irregular or infrequent menstrual periods, with more than 35 days between each period. This extended time between periods can result in brown discharge. You might also experience ovarian cysts and brown discharge between periods due to missed ovulation.

Other symptoms of PCOS may include:

PCOS is usually managed with medication, including birth control pills to regulate your menstrual cycle.

Implantation occurs when a fertilized egg embeds itself into your uterine lining.

It happens around 1 to 2 weeks after conception and may cause light bleeding of various shades, including brown.

Other early pregnancy symptoms may include:

  • uterine cramping
  • bloating
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • aching breasts

Consider taking a home pregnancy test if your period is late or you’re experiencing brown spotting in its place.

If you receive a positive test result, make an appointment with a healthcare professional to confirm your results and discuss the next steps.

Sometimes, a fertilized egg may implant itself into the fallopian tubes or in the ovary, abdomen, or cervix. This is called an ectopic pregnancy.

In addition to brown spotting, ectopic pregnancy may cause:

  • sharp pain in the abdomen, pelvis, neck, or shoulder
  • one-sided pelvic pain
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • rectal pressure

See a healthcare professional right away if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

Treatment involves removing the embryo, either with medication or surgery. Without treatment, an ectopic pregnancy can cause your fallopian tube to burst. A ruptured tube may cause significant bleeding and life threatening complications that require immediate medical treatment.

Bleeding in early pregnancy isn’t always a cause for concern. But it’s important to report brown discharge or other unusual symptoms to your care team.

Anywhere from 10% to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually within the first 3 months.

Symptoms may come on suddenly and include a gush of brown fluid or heavy red bleeding.

Others may include:

  • cramping or pain in the lower abdomen
  • passing tissues or blood clots from the vagina
  • dizziness
  • fainting

After childbirth, you may experience discharge for up to 6 weeks, consisting of blood and other contents from the uterus.

It begins as a heavy red flow. After a few days, the bleeding typically slows and may become browner in color.

This discharge changes yet again after around 10 days to more of a yellow or creamy color before it trails off completely.

See a healthcare professional if you develop strong-smelling discharge, stomach pain, or a fever. These signs, along with passing large clots, could signal an infection. could be signs of infection.

The months and years before menopause are known as perimenopause. Most people begin perimenopause sometime in their 40s.

Fluctuating estrogen levels during this period can cause irregular bleeding or spotting, which may be brown, pink, or red in color.

The following may also occur:

  • hot flashes
  • insomnia
  • irritability and other mood changes
  • vaginal dryness
  • incontinence
  • libido changes

If you’re experiencing negative symptoms, try to keep a diary of how you’re feeling and share it with a healthcare professional. They can offer hormone replacement therapy (HRT) treatments and may refer you to a menopause specialist for further advice.

After reaching menopause, spotting or bleeding between periods or after sex — of any color or consistency — is the most common sign of endometrial cancer.

Vaginal discharge that’s different from your usual discharge is also a potential sign of cervical cancer.

Symptoms beyond discharge generally don’t arise until cancer has progressed.

Advanced cancer signs may include:

  • pelvic pain
  • feeling a mass
  • weight loss
  • persistent fatigue
  • trouble urinating or defecating
  • swelling in legs

Keeping up with annual pelvic exams and regular discussions with a healthcare professional are key for early detection and prompt treatment.

In many cases, brown discharge is simply old blood that’s taking extra time to leave the uterus. This is especially true if you see it at the beginning or end of your menstrual period.

Brown discharge at other points in your cycle may still be nothing to worry about — but note when it happens, what it looks like, and any other symptoms you experience so a doctor can help pinpoint the underlying cause. These other symptoms may include smell, irritation, pain, and changes to your menstrual cycle.

They’ll most likely perform a pelvic exam and may need to swab the discharge for testing.

Additionally, see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice changes in your discharge during pregnancy, experience symptoms of infection, or have irregular bleeding or spotting after menopause.

Vaginal discharge is natural and can range in color and amount, depending on things like where you are in your menstrual cycle.

But getting to know your body can help you notice when something may be a cause for concern. Try to take note of what your vaginal discharge is usually like and speak with a healthcare professional if you notice any significant changes.