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So many components play into a person’s menstrual cycle that understanding what a period is and how it works can be confusing, even if your monthly visitor has been coming around for quite some time.
If there are some questions you might not have thought or had been too shy to ask in a health class or during a conversation with your OB-GYN, we’ve all been there. To ease your curious mind, here are few of the most common period questions answered by the experts.
What is considered a “normal” menstrual cycle?
Before you can assume your period isn’t “normal,” it’s important to know what that even means.
Ann Mullen, director of health education at Cycle Technologies, told INSIDER that “normal” menstrual cycles typically last anywhere from “21 to 35 days long.” But this can vary depending on the person’s body.
“If someone had a 25-day cycle one month, it would be considered normal if that person had a 30- or 31-day cycle the next,” Mullen told INSIDER. “That is a normal amount of variation. But if someone had cycles that varied in length by more than a week, that may be something to look into.”
Why is my period late?
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A late period is a one that comes eight or more days past it’s expected arrival, so you might want to hold off on making an appointment with your doctor if yours is off by a day or two.
Oftentimes women will realize they’re late and assume they’re pregnant, which is definitely a possibility if you’re sexually active (remember, birth control isn’t 100% effective, especially with user error).
But Mullen told INSIDER that people should also factor in their stress levels, significant weight loss, and even their age, as adolescent and perimenopausal people who menstruate can both experience fluctuating cycles.
My period is really heavy — should I talk to my OB-GYN?
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You should always consult your gynecologist if you feel like something is “off” about your menstrual cycle. That being said, every woman has their own “normal,” and every body is different.
If you tend to have a slightly heavier or longer flow than, say, your best friend or sister, it’s fine. As long as you aren’t experiencing any severe symptoms along with it, your period is probably just naturally heavy.
But if you start to notice your cycle becoming heavier, irregular, or both, or if you start to experience shortness of breath and dizziness when you bleed, Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB-GYN and U by Kotex partner, said these are all red flags for you to go see your doctor.
Why is my period so light?
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If you define a light period by how many days your period lasts, Shepherd told INSIDER that super short periods could be a sign of fibroids, polyps, or PCOS.
In terms of how heavy you bleed, however, your flow could be naturally light, while certain forms of birth control, like the pill, can make your period lighter.
Why did I miss a period?
If your period skips a few months, this is a red flag that you need to talk to your doctor ASAP.
It could be that you’re pregnant, under a lot of stress, on a birth control that has stopped your period, have lost weight, or simply that your cycle is still figuring out its flow. But missing a period could also be a sign of a more serious condition like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or other chronic conditions.
“[PCOS] is a hormonal disorder that can have a number of symptoms, one of which is very long cycles or ‘missed periods.’ Many women with PCOS may not ovulate or not ovulate regularly,” Mullen said.
“There are also chronic medical conditions that affect ovulation and cause long cycles or missed periods, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, overactive thyroid, or premature ovarian failure.”
How much blood does the average person lose on their period?
Dr. Hedieh Asadi, co-founder of DeoDoc Intimate Skincare, told INSIDER that, on average, you’ll lose anywhere from two to three tablespoons of blood per month. How much blood you lose during your period, however, will depend on how much you bleed, so the amount varies from person to person.
“80 mL is considered a heavy flow for women so anything less is considered normal blood flow,” Shepherd said. Otherwise, 30 to 50 mL is the norm.
Why are my cramps so painful?
Cramps are a normal part of PMS and the first of four phases of a cycle, otherwise known as menstruation. While “normal” cramps should only cause a mild pain in the pelvic and lower abdominal muscles, some people experience extreme pain.
The reason why you experience a period in the first place is that, during menstruation, the body is preparing itself to fertilize an egg. When the egg is not fertilized, the uterine lining is shed, which causes bleeding and muscle contractions.
“Typically when we think about [normal cramping], we think about a pain level that is able to be controlled with conservative measures such as a heating pad or taking a simple anti-inflammatory medication,” Shepherd explained.
But as OB-GYN Dr. Lakeisha Richardson told INSIDER, extremely painful cramps could be a symptom of fibroids, endometriosis, or pelvic infection.
Why do I poop so much when I’m on period?
If you catch yourself frequently making a beeline for the bathroom during that special time of the month, you’re certainly not alone.
While some people might become constipated at the beginning of their cycles, others feel like they have to go number two every five seconds. Why? Because your hormones are doing all sorts of funky rotations.
“When the estrogen and progesterone hormones dip a few days before your period starts they’re replaced by prostaglandins, which are chemicals that are released during your cycle to give your uterus and intestines leeway to contract,” Shepherd explained.
In other words, the more prostaglandins being produced, the more relaxed your bowels will be, triggering that “gotta go right now” sensation.
Is it normal for my period to smell?
Because the menstruation blood is mixing with vaginal secretion and tissue, Asadi told INSIDER it’s normal for your period to give off an odor. But if said odor is particularly foul, Richardson warned it might be something worth looking into.
“If there is an infection present you may have a foul odor,” Richardson warned. “In addition, if you wait too long to change your sanitary products there may be a smell because of the old blood.”
Do periods really stop in water?
The idea that your period takes a pause underwater is yet another urban legend that needs to be debunked.
Functional nutritionist Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP told INSIDER that, in the shower, your period will flow normally. However, if you’re in the tub or the ocean, the founder and CEO FLOLiving.com explained, “it may not flow outside of the vagina due to the counter-pressure of the water, but it’s still flowing out of your uterus and cervix.”
Can I get pregnant on my period?
Yes, and no.
“You cannot get pregnant during the first days of your period,” Mullen told INSIDER. “This is the time when your uterus is shedding its lining after not having received a fertilized egg that implants itself, your hormonal state at this point is configured around menstruation.”
As the menstrual phase of your cycle ends, however, your hormones change once again. This time to prepare your body for ovulation, aka prime baby making time.
“For some women, the end of their period can overlap with the start of their fertile days,” Mullen explained. “The fertile days occur mid-cycle, but fall in a different range for each person. Some women are fertile as early as cycle day five or day six, so if their period is still trailing off, they may be at risk for pregnancy at that time.”
Should you exercise on your period?
You can absolutely exercise on your period. The question is, do you want to? If the answer is no, then by all means, take a rest day. Your body could use a break.
If the answer is yes, gynecologist Dr. Jessica Shepherd says a little exercise can go a long way.
“The release of prostaglandins during your period causes pain and cramping. Exercise is very helpful during periods as the release of endorphins helps with pain relief and also increases oxygenation to the muscle which helps decrease cramping,” she told INSIDER.
In terms of what types of exercises you should be doing, that’s ultimately going to depend on what feels right for your body. Though, while you’re bleeding, Vitti suggested focusing on gentle exercises like walking, and yoga stretches.
What are some red flags that my period isn’t normal, and that I need to see a doctor?
Again, “normal” in the context of periods is a very relative term. However, there are some obvious red flags to look out for during your cycle that can indicate something isn’t right in your nether regions.
Asadi said things like “difficult pain during menstruation, heavy periods, extra bleeding or bleeding outside of your regular cycle, or no cycle at all,” are all signs that you need to speak with your OB-GYN.
My period isn’t coming out red — what does that mean?
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Period blood isn’t always red, and that isn’t necessarily a cause for concern.
“Blood oxidizes when it is exposed to air over long periods of time which makes it appear brown,” Asaid told INSIDER.
“Light pink blood usually indicates a lighter bleed and may appear pink in color at the beginning or end of your period,” she explained, noting that a lighter shade of pink can also be the result of period blood mixing with cervical fluid.
However, if your period is showing up as a yellow or green discharge, you definitely want to check in with your doctor.
“A yellow or green discharge, especially when it’s thick, chunky, or accompanied by an unpleasant odor,” Shepherd said, “should be looked at by a healthcare provider to rule out any infections or sexually transmitted diseases.”
Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.