Why is my period blood brown? Period blood colors & what they could mean

Periods are a spectrum…we all have slightly different ones, whether that’s in length, flow, or regularity, among other things. But did you know that periods even differ on the color spectrum? That’s right—period blood can come in lots of colors besides the classic bright red, rounding out that ROYGBIV wheel we all know and love. 

Some of these colors are to be expected. Others are off the beaten path and could warrant a little detective work. Not to fear: This article will take you through it all, from the meaning of different colors on that blood color wheel to the ideal color of discharge to when those colors might indicate something going on with your health. 

As always, we encourage you to talk to a healthcare provider if you’re ever concerned about a noticeable change in your period blood or period symptoms. But here’s a little bit of scientific intel to get you started: 

Back to basics: Discharge vs. period blood

What’s the deal with vaginal discharge—a.k.a. cervical mucus?

Let’s start with the basics. Vaginal discharge is a term often tossed around when describing the different fluids that can show up on your underwear or liners. The name is a bit of a misnomer, however; in reality, vaginal discharge is composed of cells that can come from your vagina as well as your cervix, mixed in with a healthy dose of mucus, bacteria, and good ol’ H2O.1

Most people AFAB of reproductive age have a little bit of discharge every day. Because “a little bit” can mean different things to different people (ahem, that friend who takes a little bit of coffee with her milk)…let’s quantify that: 

A normal, physiologic amount of vaginal discharge is about one-half to one full teaspoon of vaginal discharge per day. Another way to picture this is about a thumbnail’s size of discharge. 

Your discharge should be clear or white in color. It can be thin and egg white-like or thicker and creamier depending on the stage of your cycle, hormone levels, and other factors—but it should not have a noticeably unpleasant odor

You may notice that your discharge increases in quantity during these times:

  • Around ovulation, or the two weeks before the start of your period
  • When using hormonal birth control methods
  • When pregnant

Sometimes, your discharge might change in color from its usual clear or white—and that could signify a problem (more on unusual discharge colors below). 

What about period blood? 

Period blood, on the other hand, looks like… well… blood! But technically, it isn’t just blood. Menstrual fluid is typically made up of a mixture of cervical mucus (discharge), vaginal secretions, blood, and endometrial tissue. The proportion of those elements in your menstrual fluid’s “recipe” are part of what dictates its color and consistency.

Unlike discharge, it’s normal for your period blood to have a distinct smell. That smell is thanks to bacteria: Did you know that there’s a microscopic ecosystem of bacteria that make their home in your vagina? Normally, those bacteria (mostly “good” bacteria, i.e. lactobacilli) don’t smell like much of anything. But when they get mixed in with blood, it produces an odor. 

The scent of period blood might change a bit from one cycle to the next based on the amount of bacteria hanging out down there. Usually, a bit of period odor is nothing to worry about, but if something smells seriously rotten, it might be time to see a doctor to rule out BV or another infection. 

What the colors in your underwear actually mean

So, what period blood colors – and discharge colors – are normal? Can a color alone point to something going on with your health? Sometimes yes, sometimes no: We’ve got all the answers below.2

Bright red

Pop quiz: What color should your period blood be? Not a trick question, folks. The answer is red! 

This makes sense because your uterus is sloughing off the layers it has built up through the follicular phase. As we mentioned earlier, the sloughing off of the endometrium results in menstrual fluid: A mixture of endometrial tissue and cells, blood, and whatever else it finds its way down the cervix into the vaginal canal. Mostly, menstrual fluid will appear red in color thanks to the heme in red blood cells.

Darker red is A-OK, too. Usually, the darker your period blood, the longer that blood has been waiting to be shed. A darker red color might also be seen in period clots.

Pink

Have you ever noticed that your period blood is a rosy pink color? Or that you see shades of pink in those early days leading up to your period? This may be because your period blood is mixing with physiologic vaginal discharge. If you recall from preschool, red plus white = pink! 

So long as this gives way to the normal red color for the rest of your period, it should be par for the course. However, if this rosy color sustains into the rest of your period, or if it shows up at random times or across multiple cycles, it’s always good to bring it up with a healthcare provider to make sure nothing’s going awry behind the scenes.

This is especially true if you’re in your late forties or older and have already completed menopause. In this age range, any pink or brown discharge could be a sign of a precancerous disorder, according to the Merck Manual. (5)

Blue or purple (often dark bluish or purplish-red)

Just to level-set here, it’s unlikely that your period blood would ever be obviously purple in color: That would be strange, and probably a good time to reach out to a healthcare provider. The more common scenario is that there are little splotches of blue-purple that come in the shape of blood clots. 

Blood clots during your period are little collections of uterine tissue that weren’t fully broken down during the latter phases of the menstrual cycle; they will clump together and pass just like that. Often, they end up looking more blue-purple just as a result of their components. 

It is relatively normal to pass a couple blood clots throughout your period, especially on the heavier bleeding days. But if those clots are accompanied by severe pelvic pain, are larger than a quarter, or recur on multiple days or over multiple cycles, then reach out to a provider ASAP.

If your period blood itself is, sans clots, purple or purplish-red, some Chinese medicine practitioners associate this with conditions like fibroids or endometriosis.3 And there’s anecdotal evidence from naturopathic doctors that purplish blood could point to higher-than-normal estrogen levels.4 Keep in mind that neither of these assumptions are scientifically proven: Always trust your licensed healthcare provider to decide whether or not there’s a cause for concern (and don’t simply go off something you read on the Internet). 

Brown

If you’re asking yourself, why is my period blood brown? It’s likely because…it’s old blood. Brown period blood is normal! It doesn’t mean you’re dying or have some sort of terminal illness, so go ahead and take a deep breath. 

There are a number of reasons you might see older period blood showing up in your pad, cup, or disc. For one, by the end of your period (especially if yours lasts closer to a full week), you can imagine that any sloughed-off tissue has been sitting up in your uterus for a minute—so it may look a little different than it did when it was young and fresh on cycle day one. 

However: If you’re noticing this brown blood during the first couple days of your period, or if it comes with a bunch of clots, then you may want to take note of it and bring it up with a healthcare provider. Dark brown blood appearing at the beginning of your cycle could be a sign of a potential hormonal imbalance, among other things.

Orange or rust-colored

Here we’re starting to get into the subjective part of the color wheel—one person’s rust might be another person’s red, brown, or tangerine. But in general, the consensus is that orange-ish or rust-colored period blood isn’t always abnormal, but that it may be a sign of something more concerning going on. 

If you’re noticing other signs or symptoms accompanying your orange period blood or discharge—like vaginal itchiness, pain, burning, or redness—then definitely see a provider ASAP and get checked out. 

Black

If your period blood is black, then that means (by our earlier reasoning) that it is very, very old blood. Same story goes here with black menstrual fluid as with brown menstrual fluid. If it’s at the end of your period, then it’s probably fine, but if it’s popping up sooner or in repeated cycles, then…yes, we’re going to say it again…reach out to a provider. 

White

As discussed earlier, “normal” vaginal discharge is clear or whitish in color, non-odorous, and can show up daily with a tendency to increase during certain times of the cycle. Anything that differs from this could hint at an imbalance in vaginal pH, possible infection, hormonal changes, or something else. 

If you have white discharge that’s thick, clumpy, cottage cheese-like, or has a definite scent, you may have a yeast infection—especially if things are getting itchy. When in doubt, talk to your provider! Do we sound like a broken record, yet?

Yellow or yellow-green

According to the NHS, yellow or yellow-green discharge could be an indication of trichomoniasis—a common sexually transmitted infection that’s actually caused by a parasite (rather than bad bacteria).5 It may have an unusual scent and come along with itching or burning, soreness, or pain when urinating. If you think this might be the case for you, get in touch with a provider.

Yellow or greenish discharge after menopause might have to do with a condition called Desquamative inflammatory vaginitis (DIV), which is related to vaginal atrophy—a scary-sounding word that really just means your vaginal walls have thinned out due to the drop in estrogen and may have become a bit red or inflamed. Your provider can provide a topical cream to help with DIV if that’s what’s going on.6

Gray

Again, this is super subjective because, where is the line in the color wheel between gray and white? But if it looks gray to you, or is subjectively different from your run-of-the-mill cervical or menstrual fluid, then it could be a sign of BV or another vaginal infection. The likelihood increases, once again, with symptoms like vaginal itching, pain, redness, irritation, or dyspareunia (pain during sex).

Warning signs: When to see a doctor about unusual period blood or discharge

As we’ve repeatedly mentioned above, any weirdness in your discharge or period blood that catches you by surprise when looking down at your underwear (or period product) is worth mentioning to a healthcare provider or OB/GYN. If it’s not normal to YOU, it could point to a problem—and even if it ends up being nothing at all, you’ll feel better by finding out. 

In addition, let’s preface this by saying that much of period blood or discharge color IS is subjective (anyone remember #TheDress internet scandal of ‘15? Still think it’s white and gold, FWIW). 

Today’s white could be tomorrow gray—and don’t forget to factor in the color of your underwear. Black underwear might make perfectly normal, white discharge look a little gray. Blue underwear could make your period blood look a bit more purple than it should. But what’s typically less subjective are the symptoms you’re experiencing and the other signals your body is sending you. 

With this in mind, here is a list of warning signs. If they show up on their own or with changes in period  blood or discharge color, then get in touch with a healthcare professional. 

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge for you, whether that is a change in color, thickness or consistency, or smell [Quick note here: vaginal discharge should be largely odorless. If it does smell, then you should get in touch with a healthcare provider for more information.]
  • Pelvic pain at rest or during sex
  • Vaginal itchiness, redness, or irritation
  • Flank pain 
  • Changes in your urine, such as blood in the urine or pain with urination
  • Passing multiple clots during one period, especially foul-smelling clots or clots larger than the size of a quarter

This is by no means an exhaustive list—so, even if you’re having symptoms that seem totally unrelated, make sure to jot them down so you can mention them to your provider. 

Period blood and discharge colors: Key takeaways 

Period blood can come in an array of colors, and that color can give you a hint to what’s happening beneath the surface. So can your cervical mucus (more commonly known as discharge). Keep in mind that up to a teaspoon of vaginal discharge per day is normal, and that it should be either clear or white and more or less odorless. 

During your period, the mainstay colors will be pink to bright red, with potentially some darker colors at the end of the period from the older blood. Gray, blue-purple, and orange or rust colors in your underwear are more likely to be a cause for concern—especially if they come with other symptoms like itching, pain, or clots larger than the size of a quarter. 

You know your body best: Always reach out to a healthcare provider or OB/GYN if anything doesn’t feel right!

This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician. 

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