14 Reasons You Could Be Spotting Instead of Having Your Period

Spotting is bleeding that occurs outside of or instead of your period. It's considerably lighter, usually dark brown or red, and lasts up to a few days. You may notice it on your underwear or when you wipe.

If you're not having the typical symptoms that you have during your period, like cramps or breast tenderness, that's an indicator that the bleeding is spotting.

There are a number of reasons why spotting can occur. Most are not cause for concern, but knowing what's causing it and what to do about it is important.

Read on to learn more about spotting vs. your period.

Causes of Spotting - Illustration by Jessica Olah

Verywell / Jessica Olah

What Causes Spotting?

The causes outlined below are just several possible causes of spotting outside of or instead of your period.

Some are related to the body's natural changes, while others are medical conditions or external factors. Depending on the cause, the blood may come from places other than the uterine lining that sheds during your period.

Natural Changes in the Body

Spotting can occur instead of a typical period bleed. This is especially true at the very beginning or end of your period, when bleeding is just starting or tapering off. It can also occur if your periods are irregular.

Other possible causes related to natural changes in the body include:

  • Ovulation: When your body releases an egg during your menstrual cycle, it ruptures the structure that contains it and may cause pink or red spotting. Ovulation bleeding tends to be very light and usually lasts only one or two days.
  • Hormonal changes at puberty: A person's first menstrual periods may be very light. It is also common to have irregular periods for the first few years, which may include occasional spotting.
  • Hormonal changes at menopause: You may spot during the years of transition into menopause. This type of spotting is usually not something to worry about, but if you have risk factors for uterine cancer, you should mention it to your healthcare provider.

Medical Conditions

Spotting can be a sign of pregnancy, but also various medical conditions that warrant investigation and may need treatment.

  • Early pregnancy: If an egg is fertilized, it may cause spotting when it implants in the uterus. This type of spotting may be brown or pink in color and is considered normal in early pregnancy.
  • Polyps: Benign growths in the uterus can cause spotting as well as irregular periods and pain.
  • Fibroid tumors: Benign tumors in the uterus can cause spotting and some pain.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): Gonorrhea in particular can cause brown spotting, but you may also have discharge that is a white or green color.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease: This infection can cause spotting and pain, particularly after sexual intercourse.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): This is a hormonal imbalance that can cause spotting.
  • Cancer: Certain cancers of the reproductive system can cause spotting. This may look more like a red-tinged discharge.

External Factors

There are also outside factors that cause spotting outside or instead of a period:

  • Hormonal forms of birth control: These may cause brown spotting, particularly when you first start taking them.
  • Smoking: Women who smoke are more likely to have spotting.
  • Stress: Both mental and physical stress can affect the menstrual cycle and result in spotting.
  • Trauma: Rough sex, sexual abuse to the vagina, or rape may cause spotting.

If you feel concerned or it seems unusual, painful, or accompanied by discharge, call your healthcare provider.

Menstrual Cycle Phases

Your menstrual cycle is composed of several phases, though the length of a person's menstrual cycles varies from person to person. Different experts may divide it into two, three, or four phases.

Here's a look at the general division of the cycle into four phases:

  • Menses phase: Your period, generally days one through five.
  • Follicular phase: Approximately days six through 14, when your ovaries produce follicles, each of which contains an egg. The follicles grow until the egg is released.
  • Ovulatory phase: Roughly day 14, when a hormonal surge prepares the follicle to release the egg. This is ovulation. The egg can be fertilized for about 12 hours after release, but most eggs are fertilized by sperm during the three days before the egg is released.
  • Luteal phase: Approximately days 15 to 28. The egg travels to the uterus, while your body releases the hormone progesterone, which helps prepare the reproductive organs for possible embryo implantation. Estrogen levels are also high, which makes the milk ducts in the breasts open (and can make your breasts tender).

If the egg is not fertilized, your hormone levels drop, you have your period, and a new cycle begins. What may appear to be spotting during your menstrual cycle is considered normal, especially at the beginning and end of your period.

Spotting vs. Discharge vs. Regular Cycle

It can be difficult to know if you are experiencing spotting, discharge, or bleeding as part of your regular menstrual cycle. But there are some signs to indicate what is occurring.

Spotting is light, vaginal bleeding. It can be either red, light brown, or a dark brown.

There are several types of vaginal discharge, including:

  • Pink discharge can mean cervical bleeding or be linked to pregnancy when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus.
  • Clear discharge is normal, and helps keep your vagina clean and healthy. If it's "stretchy," it can mean you're ovulating.
  • White discharge can be healthy but can also be a sign of a yeast infection.
  • Gray discharge can be a sign of an infection called bacterial vaginosis.
  • Yellow or green discharge can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Red discharge or bleeding is generally part of your menstrual cycle. If it is very heavy or comes at an unusual time, there may be a medical reason for it. Contact your healthcare provider if your period seems out of the ordinary or particularly painful.

Know Your Menstrual Cycle

Your period is such a regular part of life during the reproductive years that it can be easy to not pay full attention. However, it's helpful to know your cycle so that you know when something is off. Mark the first day or your period on a calendar and do that every month for six months to get an understanding of your cycle. Note its regularity, light days, heavy days, and any spotting. When something changes, you'll be more aware of it and can contact a healthcare provider as advisable.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Although most people with menstrual cycles spot at some point in their lives, there are instances when you should see your healthcare provider about spotting. Ask yourself these questions, and if the answer to any of them is yes, make an appointment to see your healthcare professional:

  • Am I having vaginal bleeding when I don't expect it? Although spotting can be normal, it's important to have any unusual bleeding checked out by a physician.
  • Have I been skipping periods or bleeding less than usual?
  • Am I or could I be pregnant? Spotting can be normal early in pregnancy, but it should be checked.
  • Am I having spotting or bleeding after menopause? Menopausal women should not have vaginal bleeding.
  • Am I noticing spotting or bleeding after sex? It may be an infection, which needs medical treatment.

In general, anything out of the ordinary with your vaginal spotting or bleeding means it's worth contacting your healthcare provider.

Summary

There are many reasons why you may be spotting when you are not having your period. Most likely, it may be a part of the beginning or end of your period. For people who menstruate, spotting can be a normal part of the reproductive years. However, there are times when it might be an indication of something more serious. Understanding when spotting is not typical and paying attention to your own cycle can help identify when it's time to contact a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

If you are spotting when it's not your period, don't panic. But you also shouldn't ignore it. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out if it needs to be treated or not. Even though spotting and discharge can be perfectly normal, it's always best to reach out if something seems off.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is spotting considered a period?

    You may spot on the first day or two when your period is due or see a bit of blood at the end of your period.

  • When does pregnancy spotting happen?

    Pregnancy spotting can occur during implantation, when a fertilized egg attaches in the uterus. It is not usually a cause for concern, but any bleeding while pregnant should be checked by a healthcare provider.

  • Should you worry about brown discharge?

    Brown discharge is usually older blood that has left the uterus slowly. When it happens at the beginning or end of your period, it's usually normal. It's also likely harmless at other times in your cycle, but if it has an odor or is painful, see your healthcare provider.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michigan Medicine. Abnormal vaginal bleeding.

  2. Mount Sinai. Vaginal bleeding between periods information.

  3. Family Doctor. Vaginal discharge - causes and prevention.

By Nancy LeBrun
In addition to her extensive health and wellness writing, Nancy has written about many general interest topics for publications as diverse as Newsweek, Teen Vogue, abcnews.com, and Craftsmanship Quarterly. She has authored a book about documentary filmmaking, a screenplay about a lost civil rights hero, and ghostwritten several memoirs.