So, what is a period?
A period is when the uterus (womb) sheds its lining every month. "Huh?", you ask? OK, let’s take a minute to talk about the female reproductive cycle. The whole point of the female reproductive cycle is to make a baby. About once a month, your ovary will release an egg, where it will gently bob along the fallopian tube to the uterus, which has a nice, thick, healthy lining built up ready to receive it. Now, if along its path down the tubes, your egg has met along with a sperm that is swimming towards it, the egg can be fertilized (meaning a sperm and egg have merged), and will then will embed itself in the nice thick lining of the uterus (medical speak: endometrium) where it will receive the nutrients (through tons of little blood vessels) it needs to grow from a few cells into a baby over 9 months. Most often, though, that egg has not met up with a sperm, and will arrive in the uterus, unfertilized, and then keep on going. But the uterus still has that lining that is built up that isn’t needed to protect and nourish a baby. So now what? Well, your body gets rid of it. When that happens, you have your “period”. Now we mentioned that the lining has a lot of blood vessels in it, and when your body gets rid of the uneeded thickened lining of the uterus (or sheds the endometrium), the lining and blood comes out. All of this cycle is regulated automatically by hormones in your body. And it is those hormones that have been changing as you go through puberty and your body goes from a child body to a woman’s body that is prepared to have a baby.
Now, what does all this mean? First thing to keep in mind is that periods begin when all those hormone changes and body changes are getting lined up to make you ready (physically, not mentally!) to have a baby. So, when you get your first period, you have to realize that means that you are (or will be very soon) “fertile” or releasing those eggs that are looking for sperm to come together and make a baby.
When, exactly, does all this happen? Well, your first period (or medical speak: menarche), starts on average between with ages of 8 and 15. It starts about 2 or so years after breast development has started. About 6 months before you get that first period, you may notice an increase of clear vaginal discharge. That is totally normal and is nothing to worry about unless it smells really bad or it is itchy. Otherwise, it is just a sign that the hormones you have are maturing all the female reproductive organs as puberty is proceeding.
Let's pause for a moment for a chuckle - not sure if you saw this before, but it is pretty funny. All about that first period.
Back to what we are talking about.... Now, what is normal, then? After you start having a period, the hormones and eggs and all that are slowly getting organized, so to speak. So your periods probably won’t be totally regular for a year or two (maybe even up to 3). Until then, your cycle will repeat itself about every 3 to 6 weeks. After a few years, you should settle into a pattern of regular periods that you can map out on a calendar that usually occur every 3-5 weeks. So, regarding period. I have heard girls say they got the idea that the period came monthly, but they thought that what the period was was, literally, a period (like the one at the end of this sentence). A red dot. Of blood. Once. Then that was it for a month.
Also, it can look a lot of different ways – thin, thick, red, reddish brown, smooth, some clumps. Everyone is different.
Now, when you get your period you may get some other symptoms along with the bleeding. One of the most common is cramps. Cramps are thought to be caused by something called “prostaglandins” that are released at the time of your period. They cause the uterus to contract and give you crampy feelings is your lower abdomen or maybe even in your lower back. They can feel dull and achy, or sharper and more intense. About half of females get cramps, and usually they get better as you get older. They tend to be worse the first few days of your period.
What helps? You can try a warm bath or heating pad. Over the counter medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help too. And, believe it or not, exercise helps too! Cramps should not be so bad that you have to miss school or other activities, so if these simple things don’t help, definitely talk to your doctor since there are other things that can help with cramps.
What about PMS?
People love to joke about PMS, otherwise known as Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. What this is a time about a week or so before your period comes, where you might feel tired, bloated, cranky, easily angered, moody, irritable, blue, sad etc. Your breasts might be a bit sore. You might have food cravings. You might get some pimples, or your acne may flare up a bit. All of this is related to the normal homone level changes that occur with the monthly cycle. One thing to keep in mind is that the moodiness and blues of PMS is not as severe as depression. If you have feelings of sadness all month, or they are severe, you should check in with your doctor to make sure you don’t have depression.
What helps? Getting your rest, definitely. You might need a bit of extra sleep during this time. Also, eating a balanced healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies (always a good idea, really!), and staying away from salty and sugary foods which can make you more bloated or swollen feeling. Watch the caffeine too – that can make you even more jittery and anxious. And, again, exercise helps. It helps manange stress and takes the edge off feeling edgy.
Other Unpleasant Stuff:
A few more things that are normal that you might experience with your periods are related to those prostaglandins that are all fired up around your period. Those are the same thing we talked about that cause cramping. They can also make your stomach upset, and some girls might even vomit or feel like they are going to throw up. They can cause headaches too.
What helps? Having small amounts of food and liquids at a time can help settle your stomach. If that doesn't work, you can take over-the-counter NSAIDS, which are a group of medicines that have anti-prostaglandin actions. They can help with the queasiness if it goes along with cramps or headaches. Some examples of these are ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve). Generics are just as good as brand names. Pay close attention to the recommended doses, and it is always important to take these with something in your stomach (saltines are fine).
What is not normal (in other words, when should you go visit your Dr?)
- You period lasts longer than a week
- You have such heavy bleeding you have to change your pads more than every hour or 2
- You used to have regular periods and now they are all over the place
- You used to get regular periods, and now you have gone more than 3 months without a period. (For more on one reason this can happen click HERE and scroll down to Athlete's Triad)
- You have lots and lots of pain with your periods
- You are really sad and blue to the point that it is hard to go about your day to day life.
- You are so queasy that you cannot keep any food or liquids down - this means you might have something else going on unrelated to your period.
Stuff you might be worried about and some tips:
- It really helps to note your periods on a calendar. Then you will learn what will be YOUR normal cycle – how many days from period to period, how many days it lasts, what symptoms you feel before hand to let you know It’s Commminnnnngggg…. Etc. There are even apps you can put on your phone if you want! The best way to do this is to note Day 1 as the first day of your period. So when we say a cycle is 3 – 6 weeks, we mean between Day 1 of this period to Day 1 of the next.
- When you have your period, you can expect to have to change your pads 3-6 times a day, so pack what you might need to have with you in your school bag.
- If you’re worried about getting surprised by your period at school or when you are out and about, you can wear a liner (thin liner that goes in your underwear that can absorb a few spots at the beginning).
- You probably will experiment with what you want to use to absorb the menstrual flow – some people like pads that you put in your underwear (especially younger girls), others like tampons that you insert in the vagina, and others like a combination of the two.
- If you do use tampons, make sure to wash your hands before you remove or insert a tampon. Also, they cannot stay in forever. The longest you really want a tampon in is about 4-6 hours. If you leave it in for longer, there is a danger of a serious infection called TSS or Toxic Shock Syndrome.
I think that’s it for today. Any questions? Just put in a comment below (you can write Anonymous for your name! and no email required) and we’ll follow it up here.