What is a menstrual cycle?

A menstrual cycle doesn’t just refer to your period: It’s the whole shebang, starting with the first day you get your period through the time your ovaries release an egg (ovulation) and your uterus builds up a soft, spongy lining just in case that egg gets fertilized (i.e. you get pregnant). It’s normal for your cycle to be different from your friends’ or even your sister’s—a cycle can go from 21 days to more than 35, though Planned Parenthood notes 25 to 30 is the sweet spot for most people—and it’s not even always the same from month to month.

What does a normal period look like?

The truth is, normal is different for everyone! Some people have short, light periods that arrive right on schedule every 28 days, while others have heavy ones that show up whenever they darn well please (convenient, we know). Look out for what’s regular for you, and make a note of when that changes.

How long does a period last?

Generally, most periods last from about three to seven days. It’s totally normal to see a mix of period colors down there, from bright red to dark brown and everything in between.

Is clotting during your period normal?

Clots aren’t anything to be alarmed about either: Most people who get periods get them. Your body releases anticoagulants (also known as blood thinning agents) to keep menstrual blood from clotting while you’re on your period, but sometimes when you’re bleeding heavily, there’s not enough time for them to go to work—that’s when you’ll see clotting. An excess of clots can make your period feel denser or more painful because you may cramp more than you would if you were experiencing an even, steady flow.

Is PMS real?

Yes! Those emotional roller coaster rides, food cravings, bloating, breast tenderness, and body aches are the result of hormonal changes the week or two before your period arrives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently. Feel your feelings and figure out the best way to manage them, and if they really begin to interrupt your life, talk to your doc. You may have a rare but severe form of PMS called PMDD.

Why do you sometimes get heavy periods or light periods?

Switching out a super plus tampon every single hour? We’ve been there. But if that starts becoming a regular occurrence, consider making a doctor’s appointment. Here’s why: When you lose an excess of blood, you can end up developing anemia. Some experts recommend eating more iron-heavy foods in the days surrounding your period or even taking iron supplements. If you make adjustments and are still feeling wiped out, get thee to the gyno and figure out if there’s an underlying issue.

On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes periods can be very light. It’s totally normal to have a light period every once in a while (just like it’s normal to have the occasional heavy period), but if your period is consistently light, it can be a sign of an underlying issue. Though light periods are more common in your teens than your twenties or thirties, they can also be a result of being underweight or overexercising. Light periods can also indicate a hormonal imbalance or a medical condition like PCOS. If your periods are regularly light, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.

What are period cramps?

Period cramps happen when your muscles are contracting to break down the tissue that has built up in your uterine lining, and then expel that tissue from your system after. Over-the-counter meds like Advil, Aleve, and Tylenol can help, as can light exercise, sleep, soaking in a hot bath, and placing a heating pad on your lower back and abdomen to help soothe your muscles.

If, however, your menstrual cramps are so bad you can’t even get out of bed, that’s a sign something isn’t right. Cramps that bad aren’t part of the typical period symptoms/signs and could actually signal a possible underlying condition. Head straight to the doc for a check-in. Really severe cramps can be attributed to a number of things (many of them, by the way, aren’t a big deal), but there are a few cases in which you’re going to need medical help to understand and control what’s going on. Here are three common conditions that might be causing your next-level cramps:

  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

This is an infection in your reproductive organs, typically caused by an untreated STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The bad news is that sometimes you don’t know you have PID until it gets really bad, manifesting itself in long, painful periods, weirdly textured or colored discharge, spotting, pain during sex, and flu-like symptoms. If you don’t get treated, PID can cause problems like infertility, chronic pain, and even ectopic pregnancy down the line, according to the CDC. But there’s good news, too: It’s totally curable with antibiotics, so make sure you’re keeping up with what’s going on down there and take your pain seriously!

  • Endometriosis

This is another reason your cramps might be ultra-painful, and definitely something you should ask your doctor about if you’re experiencing discomfort throughout your cycle. Endometriosis causes the tissue that forms the lining of your uterus to grow outside the uterus (think of it like cobwebs that wrap around your ovaries, fallopian tubes, or even between your vagina and rectum). It can cause inflammation in your abdomen, ultimately resulting in potential scar tissue, bowel problems, and infertility. There isn’t a cure for endometriosis, but it is manageable through hormone therapy and other treatments. Surgery can also an option. 

  • Fibroids

These non-cancerous growths might also be responsible for your irregular periods and bad cramping. They grow inside and around the uterus and can cause symptoms like spotting in between periods. It’s important to note that uterine fibroids aren’t linked to an increased risk of uterine cancer, and they almost never develop into cancer! They range in size, from tiny polyps to bulkier benign masses that can distort the shape of your uterus. An interesting fact: Many people with uteruses will experience uterine fibroids at some point during their lives, but have no symptoms. Your gyno might actually find them during a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound, even if you never experience any pain or heavy bleeding. Fibroids can be treated with medications and various types of surgery (non-invasive, minimally invasive, and more traditional), but it’s also possible that they’ll go away on their own.

What is toxic shock syndrome (TSS)?

Toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, is a cluster of symptoms caused by certain bacterial infections that can spread toxins to your organs. When it comes to periods, it’s something you should be aware of, but not too concerned about it if you’re changing your tampon regularly. So what’s the deal with all those scary warnings then? In the ’80s, TSS made headlines when a bunch of young women using a specific type of hyper-absorbent tampons (which, by the way, are no longer on the market) developed bacterial infections which produced toxins inside their bodies. This life-threatening condition is accompanied by flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, muscle pain, and sometimes a rash. Even though the kind of tampons that were to blame aren’t sold anymore, there are some experts who claim that ultra-strength tampons can become bacterial playgrounds when you leave them in for too long.

Keep in mind that this condition is super rare. As to how often you should change your tampon, just make sure you’re following the instructions on the box. Another good rule to live by? If you can’t recall when you put it in, it’s time to take it out.

What is an irregular period?

A period is considered irregular if it occurs less than 20 or more than 35 days apart, is much heavier or lighter than normal, or other symptoms. Know that your period will fluctuate throughout your life, and everything from stress to weight loss to getting on or off the pill might throw your flow off its game. But if you ever feel like something isn’t quite right, make an appointment with your doctor. Keep an eye on when the pattern of your period changes, and take note if you miss a period more than three times a year or you have the signs of an irregular period. Also notify your doc if you’re bleeding more than usual or experiencing a different type or level of pain.

Can you get pregnant during your period?

It’s a common misconception that you can’t get pregnant during your period. In actuality, it is entirely possible to get pregnant while you’re on period. According to Planned Parenthood, it’s less likely that you’ll get pregnant during your period, but it is entirely possible.

Can you stop your period?

The only way to temporarily stop your period is through hormonal birth control, such as an IUD, birth control pill, progestin shot, or contraceptive implant. These hormonal birth control methods are able to suppress your period, but your period will return when you stop using them.

Which is better: tampons or pads?

Hygiene products are a matter of personal preference. One method isn’t better than another. Moreover, there’s a whole world of period products that extend beyond disposable tampons or pads. There are also menstrual cups, reusable pads, and period panties.

Is it true that your menstrual cycle syncs up with your friends?

No! This is a total myth that was busted during a recent study at the University of Oxford. The study followed 360 women who were friends, roommates, partners, sisters, etc., and there was absolutely no evidence to support the theory that menstrual cycles sync up among friends.


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