Brown Spotting After Your Period? What You Need to Know

TEAM KNIX / YOUR BODY

Any kind of unusual spotting or bleeding after your period is likely to cause alarm. But if you experience bleeding that is a different color from your monthly period or menstruation (the shedding of your uterine lining), you probably feel extra alarmed.

The good news: Brown or brownish discharge after your period is often nothing to be alarmed about. Although it can sometimes be a symptom of something requiring medical attention, it’s not necessary to jump to the worst conclusion.

First, let’s understand why discharge is brown...

Brown Discharge: What’s Going On...

Have you ever noticed that all blood stains (anything from period stains on your panties to a nose bleed on tissue paper) get darker over time… usually ending up close to a brown color when dry?

This is a simple chemical reaction: When blood is exposed to oxygen it changes color. 

And so if you experience brown discharge, it’s usually because that blood has been exposed to oxygen. In that way, it’s usually considered “old” blood, as opposed to the fresh blood of your heavy period days.

Sometimes that old (period or non-period) blood can mix with vaginal discharge so it appears like brown discharge rather than bleeding.

Is Brown Discharge a Cause for Concern?

Since the color brown or a brownish hue is not inherently troublesome, then, how concerned do you need to be about brown vaginal discharge after your period?

Well, just like spotting more generally, brown discharge can have a number of causes. Some brown discharge is not considered itself abnormal or troublesome… BUT, it really depends on the cause and other symptoms you might experience in conjunction with brown discharge.

What Could Cause Brown Discharge?

Here is a list of the most common events that could cause brown discharge. The amount of blood should be very small — at most warranting a panty liner. It’s entirely possible that you just notice it on toilet paper when using the washroom.

If you experience any kind of heavy bleeding between or after your period (no matter what color), please do seek medical advice immediately.

This list of possible causes is not exhaustive, but it covers some of the most common explanations of brown discharge after your period:

Period Causes

  • Beginning or End of Your Period: For some women, the light days at either end of their period (the shedding of your uterine lining) can manifest as light bleeding. This period blood is often seen as brown discharge. If you notice this pattern frequently, it’s likely not something to worry about.
  • Hypomenorrhea or Light Periods: Light periods can sometimes cause slower flow which allows the blood time to oxidize before leaving the body as brown discharge. If your periods suddenly become light, it’s worth noting the change and chatting with a medical professional if it persists. Factors like nutrition, weight loss and hormonal changes can cause a period to lighten.

Birth Control Causes

  • Birth Control Pills: According to Medical News Today, bleeding between periods often occurs in the first 6 months of taking a new birth control pill. Doctors sometimes refer to this as breakthrough bleeding.
  • Morning-After Pill: According to the Mayo Clinic, the morning-after pill can cause bleeding between periods.
  • Intrauterine Device (IUD): Some women with an IUD for birth control may also experience non-period bleeding.

External Causes of Brown Discharge

  • Trauma or Medical Examination: If you’ve experienced rough sex or a medical exam like a Pap test, you may also experience vaginal bleeding.
  • Medications: Certain medications may cause abnormal vaginal bleeding. Your pharmacist should advise you of any side-effects of medication.
  • Stress: Increased stress may trigger many reactions. Stress may cause all kinds of changes in your body, including irregularities in your menstrual cycle. Some may experience vaginal bleeding due to high levels of emotional stress.

Common Infections

The following infections may cause irregular bleeding between periods. It’s worth noting that most infections are treatable. However, infections can become more serious if symptoms are ignored.

  • Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and genital warts.
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), an infection of the upper part of the female reproductive system.

Pregnancy and Pregnancy-Related Causes

  • Ovulation: When the ovaries release the egg, a tiny follicle ruptures to allow the egg to be released. This can be a cause of bleeding for a day or so.
  • Implantation bleeding: After a sperm fertilizes an egg, the fertilized egg implants in the womb, resulting in pregnancy. Sometimes, implantation of the fertilized egg causes light bleeding known as implantation bleeding.
  • Ectopic Pregnancy: Signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy  include abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding.
  • Early Pregnancy: According to the American Pregnancy Association, 20% of medically reviewed women experience light bleeding during the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy.
  • Miscarriage: Heavy bleeding is one of the symptoms of miscarriage of a pregnancy.
  • Lochia: Lochia is the name given to vaginal discharge after giving birth. It contains a mix of blood, mucus, and uterine tissue. Lochia discharge typically continues for four to six weeks after childbirth, a time known as the postpartum period or puerperium. Lochia can often manifest as brown or brownish discharge.

Other Causes of Brown Discharge

  • Uterine fibroids or Polyps: Symptoms of these benign tumours can include irregular or heavy periods and vaginal bleeding between periods.
  • Endometriosis: According to the Mayo Clinic, women with endometriosis may experience occasional heavy menstrual periods or irregular bleeding between periods (intermenstrual bleeding).
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS can cause ovarian cysts and make it difficult to get pregnant. Ovarian cysts can also cause irregular vaginal bleeding.
  • Cancer: Cancer or pre-cancer of the cervix, uterus, or (very rarely) fallopian tube can cause abnormal bleeding.

Perimenopause & Menopause

  • Perimenopause: The time before menopause is known as perimenopause. During perimenopause, hormone levels fluctuate greatly. These hormonal shifts can have an effect on ovulation and your entire menstrual cycle. Some notice irregular or skipped periods and abnormal bleeding, including brown discharge, between periods during perimenopause.
  • Cancer: According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, vaginal bleeding in post-menopausal women can, in some cases, be an early sign of cancer and should always be investigated further.

When to See a Doctor About Brown Discharge

Many of us avoid consulting medical professionals about menstrual or intermenstrual concerns. However, if you experience stress or anxiety due to unusual spotting or brown discharge, it’s always worth talking to your doctor.

If there’s nothing to worry about, your doctor will be able to set your mind at ease. However, there are times when brown discharge, spotting or bleeding between periods could be a cause for concern and needs to be medically reviewed. And if that’s the case, the sooner you see a doctor, the better.

If brown discharge  is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it warrants getting some medical advice from your doctor:

  • Heavy periods with a lot of clotting
  • Irregular periods
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Pain or a burning sensation when peeing
  • Unusual vaginal discharge and/or redness and itchiness
  • Bleeding or pain during/after sex
  • Foul smelling discharge

Even if you don’t have any of the above symptoms, don’t ever ignore spotting, abnormal vaginal bleeding or abnormal uterine bleeding in the following situations:

  • If you think you’re pregnant: You should always see a doctor as soon as you think you may be pregnant to be administered a pregnancy test.
  • When it happens inconsistently: If spotting seems to happen frequently and randomly, you should definitely look into it.
  • It begins after unprotected sex: Unprotected sex can put you at risk for STIs and other infections so if you notice spotting after unprotected sex, it’s wise to visit a doctor.
  • You are on medication: If spotting can be a side-effect of any medication you are on, you should seek out professional help.
  • Spotting occurs post-menopause: It is never considered normal for anybody post-menopause to experience spotting or vaginal bleeding.

Track Your Cycle in a Journal or App

If you’re experiencing brown discharge or spotting at regular intervals, it’s a really good idea to start tracking your cycle and symptoms in a journal or medically reviewed app.This can help you understand the rhythms of your own body. Remember, everybody has their own cycle and flow and it may be affected by many factors, both internal and external.

When you’re tracking, pay attention to bleeding, but also other symptoms, including:

  • Vaginal discharge: Its texture, smell and color (white discharge included)
  • Cramps or abdominal pain
  • Breast tenderness 

You can even make notes about sudden increases in libido or mood changes. Remember that spotting or intermenstrual bleeding may be a symptom of many different causes. Having your tracked information medically reviewed will help you frame any discussion with your doctor.