All about periods (menstruation)

Even if your period pays you a visit every month, how much do you really know about your period — or menstruation to use the scientific term? Do you know why it happens? How to predict it? Or how you can treat period cramps or any other symptoms you may have around that time of the month? If not, you’ve come to the right place! We’ll explain all this and more, including how long a period typically lasts, and whether you can induce or stop menstruation. Read on!

What is the menstrual cycle?

Before we talk more about the specifics of that time of the month, it’s important to give an overview of the menstrual cycle to help you understand more about why menstruation happens in the first place.

Your menstrual cycle is by definition a ‘cyclical process’ of roughly a month with the first day of menstruation (i.e., the start of your period) marking the beginning, and the day before your next period marking the end of one menstrual cycle. Here is what happens during a normal menstrual cycle: 

  1. The ovaries get a chemical signal from follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), causing some follicles (immature eggs) in the ovaries to start to develop.  
  2. Eventually one egg becomes dominant and when it matures, the ovary releases the mature egg into the fallopian tube, where if sperm is present, the egg can become fertilised.  
  3. At the same time as the ovary prepares to release an egg, the uterus (womb) lining begins to thicken in preparation to receive a fertilised egg. 
  4. The egg travels down the fallopian tube. 
  5. If the egg is not fertilised within 24 hours after ovulation, it dies and will eventually leave the body during your period. 
  6. The womb lining comes away and leaves the body as menstrual blood.  

 

 

The menstrual cycle is controlled by hormones, like estrogen, progesterone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH). Read more here to learn more about the menstrual cycle and ovulation.

What is menstruation?

Menstruation is the part of the menstrual cycle when a woman bleeds from her vagina for a few days. 

On average, menstruation can last between three and eight days, but most of the time it’ll last for around five days. Many women report that their heaviest bleeding happens in the first two days. 

When your menstruation is at its heaviest, you may notice that the blood is a bright or dark red, and that it turns to a pink, brown, or even a black colour when the flow is much lighter. 

On average, you’ll lose about 5 to 12 teaspoons (that’s 30 to 72 millilitres) of blood during your period, though some women bleed more or less than this. You may even notice clotted stains as well. All perfectly normal.

How often do you get your period?

As the period marks the start of a new menstrual cycle, you might expect you’d get it every 28 days—at least that’s what the textbook example is. However, things play out a little differently in real life. The typical 28-day menstrual cycle won’t apply to all women, and in fact it’s common for the number of days in your menstrual cycle to range from 21 to 40 days. 

Plus, the number of days in the menstrual cycle doesn’t just vary from woman to woman, but many women will even see a variation between cycles.  

At what age do periods usually start and stop?

On average, most girls get their periods around the age of 12, but this is not always the case. There’s a broad range of what is considered normal – anywhere between the ages of 10 and 16. Just like how often you have a period, the age a girl’s period starts varies. If your period hasn’t started by the time you’re 16, you should see your doctor. 

You will continue to have periods until you reach the menopause, which happens on average around the age of 51, but it can happen anytime from your late 40s to your mid-50s. Some women can even go through early menopause, which is when it happens before age 45, although this is uncommon.

Of course, if you get pregnant or you’re on certain forms of hormonal contraception, your periods  may also stop, but once you’ve given birth and finished breast-feeding, or you’ve stopped taking this type of contraception, your periods should resume. Once you’ve passed menopause, your periods will stop for good.

What are the signs and symptoms of your period?

Other than bleeding from the vagina, you may have the following symptoms during your period: 

  • Cramping in the abdomen or pelvic area 
  • Pain around the vagina
  • Lower back pain 
  • Bloating
  • Tender, sore, or painful breasts 
  • Appetite changes
  • Mood swings and/or irritability 
  • Headaches 
  • Tiredness. 

You may notice a few of the above during your period, but you may also have similar symptoms leading up to your period, due to what’s called premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

The symptoms of PMS may include

  • bloating 
  • breast tenderness 
  • mood swings and/or irritability 
  • spots and skin breakouts 
  • greasy hair 
  • loss of interest in sex.

How can you treat symptoms like period pain?

Some women have no issues before or during their periods, however others may experience pain, heavy bleeding, or intense PMS symptoms. There are a few ways you can treat some of the more unpleasant symptoms of menstruation, which we describe in the following sections. 

How to stop period cramps

One of the main things many women complain about is period pain. These period cramps are caused by the womb contracting (the contraction helps push the blood out) and are quite common. In some women they can be extremely severe. 

There are a few things you can do to help manage period pain: 

  • Do some exercise. Sometimes exercise can help relieve period cramps. 
  • Talk to your doctor about your over the counter painkiller options. Your doctor can recommend a good pain relief option if you struggle with menstrual pain. 
  • Discuss your hormonal contraception options with your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe the contraceptive pill, injection, or patch to help reduce the pain. 
     

How to handle heavy periods

You may struggle with extremely heavy flows, and if they are so heavy that you find they make your life difficult, talk to your doctor. There are treatments out there like certain hormonal contraceptives and anti-inflammatory tablets, among others, and your doctor can help you find the right one for you. 

How to deal with PMS

Luckily, a few lifestyle changes can help relieve the symptoms of PMS, for example

  • getting regular exercise 
  • following a healthy and balanced diet 
  • getting seven to eight hours of sleep
  • reducing stress
  • not smoking 
  • not drinking too much alcohol.

Sometimes taking painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol can help with any pain associated with PMS. 

It can be a good idea to keep a diary with your symptoms for about two to three cycles, so if you do need to see your doctor, you can explain the symptoms you’re having better and pinpoint when they occur during each cycle. 

Menstrual hygiene products

When you get your period, there are many products on the market to help you stay dry and avoid leaks. These can include: 

  • Pads. Absorbent pads, like those from Always, stick to your underwear and absorb the blood. You’ll need to change them every so often, and dispose of them after use. 
  • Tampons. This absorbent menstrual product—like Tampax—is inserted vaginally. One benefit of this is that you can still go swimming even when you have your period. Another benefit of tampons is that you can wear any type of underwear while using them. 
  • Menstrual cups. This is a silicone cup that is inserted into the vagina. It’s reusable, as it can be sterilised in boiling water. 
  • Period pants. Menstrual underwear which you can wear in place of traditional hygiene pads or tampons are growing in popularity.
     

Tracking your period

Many women track their periods on a regular basis. It can help you see your typical cycle length and you can work out if it’s regular. Tracking has many benefits, like helping you prepare for menstrual symptoms or plan for upcoming events, plus it can take some of the stress out of your period arriving when you least expect it. 

You can also track any symptoms related to your cycle, such as headaches, mood swings, appetite, plus it could help you monitor irregular periods, spotting, or any abnormal discharge over the course of your cycle. 

Tracking your cycle is also useful if you are trying for a baby, as it can help you know when to take an ovulation test to predict your fertile days or when to take a pregnancy test

Here are a couple ways you can track your period: 

  • Use a period tracker app. There are many cycle tracking apps out there. Most are based on calculating your cycle length using a calendar method and provide a reasonably good indication of when your period is due, but because they don’t actually measure your hormones, their prediction can sometimes be a little off. Most apps also help you track other symptoms to help you build up a personalised picture of how you feel at different times of the month. 
  • Write it down by hand. A bit low-tech, but based on the same principles as an app, you can simply use a calendar or journal to make notes of any PMS symptoms, or simply tick off the days you have your period. You might even like to colour code it based on how heavy the flow is each day. 
     

How do you know if your period is normal?

There isn’t really one definition of what is normal when it comes to your menstrual cycle, and your experience may even change from one period to the next, or during different stages of your life. 

Your periods may also be a little different to what your female friends and family members experience. For example, yours may be longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, regular or irregular in comparison to theirs. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong.

Keep in mind, however, that missing a period could mean you’re pregnant, and in some cases a change in your cycles or flow could indicate a health concern. It’s best to see your doctor for a diagnosis if you’re at all concerned about your menstrual cycle. 

If you suspect you may be pregnant, it’s worth taking a pregnancy test to be sure.  

What does spotting or bleeding between periods mean?

Bleeding or spotting between periods could be caused by 

  • an infection 
  • abnormalities in the cervix 
  • pregnancy (implantation bleeding)
  • cancer (in rare cases). 

If you notice any bleeding between periods or after sex, see your doctor. 

Can you start or stop menstruation?

Yes, it is possible to make a period start, as well as preventing your period from coming, for example, if you have an important life event coming up. However, it’s complicated, as often the most reliable way to start or stop menstruation requires hormonal intervention. Talk to your doctor to find out more about your possible options.

I’ve missed my period but I’m sure I’m not pregnant, what’s going on?

Delayed or missed periods—when pregnancy is not the reason—can be caused by: 

  • A hormonal imbalance. This may be treated by hormone therapy, which your doctor can talk to you about and prescribe if needed. 
  • Weight issues. Being underweight—especially if an eating disorder is the cause—or being overweight can cause anovulation, which is when you don’t release an egg in a cycle and you don’t menstruate. Anovulation can be  a chronic condition. Getting to a healthy weight, or even just closer to a healthy weight can help your periods return. Speak to your doctor for advice on what a healthy weight is for you and how you can achieve it.
  • Too much exercise. If intense exercise has caused anovulation, consuming more calories or reducing the amount of exercise you’re doing (or both) can help your menstrual cycles return. 
  • Stress. Sometimes stress can cause you to skip a period or be late, so learning to manage it can help.  
  • You’re approaching menopause. As you approach menopause, cycles will often become shorter at first, and then you may have longer gaps between your periods until they stop for good.

If you are concerned about your period not coming—and you have confirmed with a pregnancy test you are not pregnant—talk to your doctor to figure out the cause and to get expert advice on what you can do to resolve any underlying problems. 

How to stop periods

It’s possible to stop menstruation with certain contraceptives, like those that are injected or implanted as well as certain intrauterine devices. If you wish to stop having your period, speak to your doctor about your options.

When should you go to a doctor?

It’s best to see your doctor if you have any questions at all about your period or menstrual cycle, but make it a priority if: 

  • You have not started your period by the age of 16 
  • You have bleeding or spotting between your periods 
  • You have PMS symptoms that are affecting your daily life despite trying lifestyle changes or over the counter remedies 
  • You have extremely painful periods coupled with symptoms like fatigue, pelvic pain, irregular cycles, or pain during sex or while going to the toilet 
  • You have missed many periods and you’re not pregnant
  • You’ve taken a pregnancy test and the result was positive 
     

FAQs

  • Why do periods happen?

    If an egg is not fertilised, the hormones estrogen and progesterone fall, and the uterus (womb) sheds the lining that thickened in preparation for an embryo. Menstrual bleeding is how your body removes this womb lining from the uterus.

  • How many days do women menstruate?

    Usually three to eight days, but on average it tends to be around five days, with most women finding the heaviest bleeding happens in the first two days.

  • How to make your period come faster?

    There is no way that’s been proven to make your period come faster, although there are myths that exercise, relaxation methods, or even an orgasm can bring on menstruation.

  • What happens during a menstrual cycle?

    The menstrual cycle has four phases:

    • Your period comes (womb lining sheds)
    • The follicles in the ovary mature and an egg develops
    • An egg is released into the fallopian tube
    • The lining of the womb thickens in preparation for an embryo, but if the egg is not fertilised progesterone and estrogen levels fall and the cycle begins again.
  • Can you get pregnant on your period?

    Yes, it’s possible to get pregnant on your period but it depends when you ovulate in your cycle. For example, if your are still having your period on day 5, and you ovulate on day 10 of your menstrual cycle there is a chance you could get pregnant 5 days after your period because sperm can survive inside your body for up to 5 days.

  • Is a 2-day period normal?

    Although this falls below the average, it’s perfectly normal to have a two-day period. See your doctor if you are concerned.

  • Is it normal to have your period for 10 days?

    If you regularly have a period lasting for more than eight days, see your doctor to rule out any medical problems that may be behind your longer period.

The bottom line

Although menstruation is something most women go through, no single experience will be the same.  Some periods will be heavier, others lighter; some cycles will be shorter, others longer. The main takeaway is, periods are a normal part of life, and many of the uncomfortable symptoms that come with your period can either be managed via lifestyle changes or be treated with help from your doctor. If you ever notice anything that seems worrying or unusual based on your own personal cycle history, contact your doctor who can either recommend a form of treatment or reassure you that everything is fine.