When you're trying for a baby, you get used to getting up close and personal with your natural bodily functions pretty quickly. You may even have spent time peering at your cervical mucus to work out the best time to work out when you'll be ovulating. Now you're pregnant, you're probably even more aware of your body and any changes that occur. If you've noticed brown discharge during pregnancy, you may be feeling concerned about what this might mean and what you should do.
What is brown discharge during pregnancy?
An increase in the amount of vaginal discharge throughout pregnancy is normal due to hormonal changes. A normal discharge is usually colourless, white, or cream-coloured, and tends to be odourless but should not smell offensive. Sometimes your discharge might be tinged with red, pink, yellow, green, or brown. If this happens you can speak to your midwife, GP, or maternity assessment centre for further advice.
Is brown discharge during pregnancy normal?
In pregnancy a colourless or white, milky discharge is normal, as is a slight increase in the amount you will pass, however:
• In early pregnancy you may experience a small amount of brown discharge from what is known as an implantation bleed, which is when a fertilised egg implants into the wall of the uterus (womb). This may in fact be one of the first early signs of pregnancy and shouldn’t last long. If it continues, starts to become red or is accompanied by abdominal cramps or contraction pain we recommend contacting your midwife or hospital for advice and further assessment.
• Similarly, in later pregnancy, you may notice a brown-streaked mucousy discharge which may be a sign of a softening of your cervix which could indicate that the start of labour may be imminent. After 37 weeks this is perfectly normal, and this may continue to come away until labour begins. If you are under 37 weeks and have continuing discharge call your midwife or maternity assessment centre for advice.
What causes brown discharge during pregnancy?
Brown discharge can be caused by one of several conditions including infections, trauma from examinations or sex, pregnancy loss, meconium (baby’s first poo) in the waters surrounding your baby, and a show (mucus plug).
Brown discharge is usually old blood which has turned from red to brown and usually nothing to be concerned about but if it continues, you can seek advice from your midwife or GP. If the discharge seems brown and watery or has brown or green flecks or lumps in it this can indicate the waters around baby have broken and that they have opened their bowels. Again, you can contact your maternity assessment centre for further help and advice if you suspect this.
Complications associated with brown discharge during pregnancy
While brown discharge before a period is caused by old blood that has oxidised, brown discharge in the early stage of pregnancy (implantation bleed) and at the very end of pregnancy (mucousy show) can be normal. However, if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as feeling unwell or pain or it continues it is recommended that you seek advice from your midwife, GP or maternity assessment centre.
Other possible causes of brown discharge are:
• An ectopic pregnancy - In the early stages of pregnancy a fertilised egg may implant outside of the uterus, for example in a fallopian tube. An ectopic pregnancy will likely still produce a brown impanation bleed but may be accompanied by any of the following: shoulder pain, abdominal cramps or contractions or chronic pelvic pain, fainting and dizziness. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek prompt medical attention.
• Urinary tract infections (UTI) and sexually transmitted infections (STI) may present with a brown discharge along with lower abdominal or back pain, stinging or burning when peeing, a fever or lethargy. UTIs and STIs can be treated during pregnancy and prompt treatment for these conditions can help prevent further complications developing with you and your baby.
• Placenta Praevia – a condition when a low-lying placenta partially or completely covers the cervix and can cause bleeding, which may then turn to a browner discharge. This condition is usually identified at the 20-week scan and follow-up scans will help monitor its development. As your baby and uterus grow most people will find their placenta no longer covers the cervix.
• Cervical irritation/trauma – vaginal examinations and sex may irritate the cervix which can cause a small bleed which presents as spotting or brown discharge.
• Cervical polyps – these are small, usually benign growths that can be irritated during examination or sex and may bleed resulting in a brown discharge.
• Meconium liquor – if your waters break and they are brown or green-brown there is a possibility that baby has opened their bowels. It is recommended to have a prompt assessment from your midwife or maternity assessment centre if you think you have meconium-stained waters so you can have closer monitoring.
• Pregnancy loss – may initially present as a brown discharge which could change to a fresh red bleed. This may be accompanied by cramps or contractions, passing of clots, feeling faint, and/or sudden loss of pregnancy symptoms. If you experience fresh, red vaginal bleeding in pregnancy contact your maternity assessment centre for advice or if bleeding heavily, attend A&E or dial 999.
What to do if you have brown discharge during pregnancy
During your pregnancy, if you are concerned about any changes in your vaginal discharge you can seek advice from your healthcare providers, either your GP, your midwife, or your obstetrician as they can organise tests and treatment if required. Seeking advice about discharge in pregnancy is wise as treatments recommended may be different to if you were not pregnant.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to discuss anything with your midwife or doctor, including discharge; there is very little that they will not have seen or heard before.
About the expert
This article contains expert advice from registered midwife and co-founder of My Expert Midwife, Lesley Gilchrist. With extensive experience as a labour ward co-ordinator and as a community midwife, Lesley brings her expertise in pregnancy, postnatal, birth and the birth process to Mother&Baby to keep you informed and empowered.