10 Facts About Periods Everyone Should Know

There's a lot more to periods than you might expect.

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Photo: ljubaphoto/Getty Images

You can expect to get your period approximately 450 times throughout your life. Even if you have an idea of how your period typically goes, you may still be wondering about any changes that might happen around that time of the month.

Maybe your cycle is super long or short, it's irregular, or it comes with side effects like PMS—and you wonder if this is a normal part of your period. Perhaps issues you haven't experienced before have started, like awful cramps or a heavier flow, and you're not sure if you need to see your healthcare provider.

The fact is, it's important to pay attention to what's normal and what isn't during your cycle because changes can provide clues to your overall health, Taraneh Shirazian, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center, told Health.

We asked Dr. Shirazian and other experts to decode puzzling period symptoms, unexpected side effects, and other crucial pieces of information about your period that you need to know.

01 of 10

It Really Is Okay To Skip Your Period

You're not alone if you occasionally use your birth control to avoid your period. And fortunately, it's safe.

When you use hormonal contraception continuously, "the endometrial lining is thinned, which means you don't need a period to get rid of it," Adam R. Jacobs, MD, medical director of the division of family planning at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, told Health.

If you're on the pill, talk to your healthcare provider about skipping the placebo pills and immediately starting a new pack. You may also want to discuss types of birth control designed to reduce the frequency of your period.

02 of 10

The Pill Isn't the Only Option for Heavy Periods

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), 20% to 30% of people deal with heavy menstrual bleeding, or menorrhagia—a condition often accompanied by painful cramps and, if left untreated, can lead to anemia (low blood cell count). While many people turn to birth control pills for relief, there may be a better option: the Mirena IUD.

As of May 2022, Mirena has been the only hormonal IUD with FDA approval for treatment of menorrhagia—for up to five years. The Mirena IUD releases a small amount of progestin, which thickens the cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to reach an egg. It also makes the uterine lining much thinner, decreasing bleeding. Two other hormonal IUDs on the market, called Skyla and Kyleena, have similar effects.

Other hormonal contraceptives, such as the birth control shot, can also be used to manage your flow, Ana Cepin, MD, an ob-gyn at New York-Presbyterian at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Health. These birth control options will not only make your period lighter but also shorter, Dr. Cepin added.

03 of 10

Menstrual Cups and Period Panties Are Eco-Friendly Options

You can expect to go through more than 10,000 pads or tampons during your lifetime on average. However, there are options available that, over time, may be friendlier for your wallet and the environment: menstrual cups and period panties.

Menstrual cups are made of flexible silicon and sit in the vaginal canal to collect (instead of absorb) menstrual blood, according to a July 2019 The Lancet Public Health study. Most cups can stay in for up to 12 hours, and reusable versions can be kept for years, significantly reducing the amount of waste you'd have if you used a disposable product. The cup is reusable because you empty and wash it before reinserting it, which might not sound as appealing as tossing it in the trash, but it's a lot more eco-friendly.

Like the cup, period panties are reusable—per a July 2018 International Journal of Women's Health article—after washing, meaning they have a smaller environmental footprint than disposable products. Period panties can hold up to three times the amount of blood one tampon can absorb. If you're not into pads, these panties are still helpful for backup coverage. You could also wear them with a menstrual cup or tampon to stop worrying about leakage.

04 of 10

Your Periods May Be Variable During Perimenopause

In general, the average age for experiencing menopause is 52, according to the Office on Women's Health (OWH). Before your periods stop altogether when you reach menopause, they will likely get longer and heavier, shorter and lighter, or any experience in between during perimenopause (when your body is transitioning to menopause).

"It's really disconcerting for women whose periods were regular and predictable in their 30s to find them suddenly going haywire in their 40s," Dr. Jacobs said. Still, if you have bad cramping or anemia, hormonal contraceptives should help.

05 of 10

You Can Get Pregnant if You Have Sex During Your Period

It's very unlikely you'll get pregnant while on your period, but it is possible. Though you typically ovulate about 14 days after the start of your period, some people can ovulate unpredictably, Felice Gersh, MD, ob-gyn and founder/director of the Integrative Medical Practice of Irvine, California, told Health.

According to MedlinePlus, "sperm can live inside a woman's body for less than five days." So if you have sex on the last day your period and happen to ovulate earlier than normal within that five-day window, you could conceive.

06 of 10

You Probably Lose a Lot Less Blood Than You Think

It may feel like you lose a ton of blood each month, but you only lose about 3-6 tablespoons on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you think your flow is a lot heavier than that, Dr. Gersh suggested keeping track of how often you have to change your tampon or pad. If you have to change it more than once every few hours, "that's probably excessive," Dr. Gersh said and is something to discuss with your healthcare provider. Losing too much blood puts you at risk of anemia, which can cause fatigue, dizziness, and cold hands and feet, among other symptoms.

07 of 10

Cramps That Get More Painful Can Be a Sign of Something Serious

Many people get cramps during their period; they result from contractions in the uterus that help shed the uterine lining. The pain from these contractions can range from mild discomfort to serious agony. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain medications can help (especially if you take them before your cramps get super awful), as can remedies like a heating pad and massaging your lower abdomen.

If you don't usually get cramps or the pain is no big deal—and suddenly it feels like someone is tying your uterus in a knot every month, that's cause for concern, Dr. Cepin said. When cramps materialize out of the blue or intensify, it could be due to a more serious condition, such as uterine fibroids, benign growths in the uterus. It could also be a sign of endometriosis, when tissue similar to uterine tissue grows outside the uterus.

Seek treatment if your cramps are significantly inhibiting your life or if they're progressively getting to the point where they might, so healthcare providers can diagnose what's going on and take steps to ease the aching.

08 of 10

Period Tracking Apps Help You Stay on Top of Your Cycle

Apps like Clue, Eve, and Flo Period & Calendar Tracker keep tabs on your cycle to alert you when your period is due, even if it doesn't come every 28 days.

These apps can be especially helpful if period-related symptoms hit you hard in the days before your period arrives. By tracking when your symptoms hit each month, you'll know exactly when to expect the bloating, mood swings, pre-period cramps, or other body issues so you can take steps to minimize their impact.

"If you're trying to figure out a cause and effect, it's certainly nice to have a record so you can track things over time and see if there does seem to be a causality," Dr. Gersh said.

09 of 10

Period Sex Has Many Benefits—And One Potential Drawback

Period sex has many advantages: It can reduce pain from cramping (or at least distract you from it), and the extra lubrication can make penetration feel even better. However, your odds of contracting or transmitting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) are higher at this time of the month.

"The microbial population of the vagina will be different during a menstrual period than it will be during a different time in the cycle," Dr. Gersh said. In other words, the acidity of your vagina during menstruation is at a point where it's easier for microbes to get into your system. Also, cervical mucus might be decreased, so you don't have that layer of protection keeping germs out.

"Blood is a vehicle that transmits infections," Dr. Gersh added. So, if you decide to have sex during your period, opt to use a condom for protection: Condoms lower the risk of STI transmission, according to the CDC.

10 of 10

Spotting Between Periods Isn't Always a Bad Sign

Depending on where you are in your cycle, levels of estrogen and progesterone change, and sometimes that can result in spotting—a small amount of bleeding, say enough to stain your underwear or a panty liner. This between-periods bleeding might be annoying, but it's nothing to worry about, Dr. Gersh said.

However, other causes of spotting can be a concern. Cervical cancer, uterine cancer, uterine polyps, and other serious conditions can also trigger abnormal bleeding, Dr. Gersh added.

If you're spotting because of normal changes in hormone levels, the bleeding will likely happen at the same time each month, Dr. Gersh said. That's why it's useful to keep track of your symptoms on an app or calendar. If you have that data available, your healthcare provider can determine if the bleeding is occurring during a point in your cycle when hormones are in flux.

If you've never had spotting before, it happens randomly or goes on all month long, it's time to tell your provider. "It's never normal; it doesn't mean that it's something terrible," Dr. Gersh said. "It could be that a woman has a hormonal imbalance, but it always requires a comprehensive evaluation if a woman has random spotting."

It's always best to be informed about your period—that way, you'll know what's normal and what's not.

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