While periods may seem quite straightforward, they can actually be pretty complicated. There’s the timing, the symptoms and the cramps to factor into it, not to mention the sudden flood of hormones you experience. But once you know what’s behind the domino effect that leads to you getting your period, it can be easier to predict – and therefore easier to manage. Here, we answer the most common questions about your period and share some period tips.
“Period” is a nickname for menstruation, which is the phase of your menstrual cycle during which you bleed. (Menstrual comes from the Latin menses, which means month.) Menstruation means that the body is capable of becoming pregnant, and during each month-long menstrual cycle, your body basically sets itself up for pregnancy.
Your hormones are the boss of your menstrual cycle, and they dictate all the different processes that happen in your body. The first day of your period kicks off every new cycle. That can last for up to a week. Then, the levels of a few different hormones (oestradiol, luteinising hormone, and follicle-stimulating hormone) rise throughout the course of week two, working to ‘wake up’ the ovaries. That’s the first half of your cycle in a nutshell.
About halfway through the cycle (around the 14th day of an average 28-day cycle) the levels of these hormones drop, which causes the ovary to send an egg down to the uterus. That’s when a hormone called progesterone steps up; it thickens the lining of your uterus, prepping it to nourish a fertilised egg should you get pregnant. If the egg isn’t fertilised by a sperm within a week or so (meaning no pregnancy occurs) it breaks down. Your progesterone level also falls, leading the uterus to shed its thickened lining. That causes your period; the blood contains the remnants of that old, unused uterine lining. Then you’re back to square one.
It’s hard to predict when you’ll get your first period because everyone is different. In most cases, your period should come when you’re somewhere between the ages of nine and 13 (although it could arrive as late as 16). You can prep for this change by reading up on what to expect when you get your first period. (Attention parents, we’ve got you covered, too – have a look at our guide to talking to your kids about poverty.
Your body’s going to start prepping for your period way before it actually comes. Firstly, your breasts will start to grow, and you might notice hair growing under your arms and on your pubic area. You may also notice discharge before you get your first period; a clear or white fluid in your underwear. That’s usually a sign that you may get your period within the next year or so.
A first period tip: if your period isn’t a real blood-red shade of red, that’s totally normal. The first time you get your period, it could be pink or brown in colour. It takes your body a few months to figure out this new development, so most things about your period – the timing, the colour, etc. – aren’t set in stone.
Your period usually lasts between two and seven days, though it could even be a little longer. It’s usually heaviest on the first three days, and then lightens up towards the end. (Have a look at our full guide to all the different phases of your menstrual cycle here.)
In most cases, your period doesn’t show up exactly 28 days later. In fact, for the first few months, your period will be really unpredictable and irregular. Although the average cycle length is indeed 28 days (hence its ‘monthly’ timing), your cycle could actually last anywhere from 21 to 35 days. That’s a huge window, and again, it won’t stick to the same timeline every month. So, don’t panic if it seems shorter or longer than usual. Try using a period tracker like the Tampax Period Tracker, which can help you to figure out a pattern in your cycle and help you plan better for your period.
Period cramps are just like cramps anywhere else: a muscle contracts too hard or too fast, constricting the blood flow and causing pain. Except when your uterus is contracting, it can feel extra painful – which is why it’s not uncommon for cramps to put you out of action for a while.
While this info won’t exactly make your cramps go away, there are some period tips in it for you: heating pads can definitely help, as can a warm bath and an over-the-counter painkiller. And even though you may not feel like it, exercise can work wonders. If you’re dealing with other unpleasant period side effects (like our old pal bloating), then have a look at this guide full of tips on how to feel better during your period.
Your period could be late for a whole host of reasons. Maybe your diet changed, you’re stressed to the nines, or you’ve been under the weather. If you miss it altogether, there’s always the possibility of pregnancy – but a missed period doesn’t automatically mean you’re pregnant. Things like stress, nutrition, or an infection can also make your period late or MIA entirely.
But if you’ve been getting your period for a while and it’s still irregular every month – and you’re definitely not pregnant – then you should see your doctor to rule out an underlying disorder or another medical concern.
Certain forms of hormonal contraceptives enable you to skip your period entirely. Beyond that, there’s no safe, proven way of stopping your period (outside of pregnancy and the menopause, at least).
If you want your period to come earlier – so, for example, you can go on holiday without packing a whole suitcase of tampons – you’re out of luck. Unless it’s for a legitimate medical reason, in which case a doctor can help, there’s no way to DIY a faster period. While you can certainly find a million and one ‘natural remedies’ that can supposedly speed things up, there’s no scientific evidence to back them up. You’re better off letting nature run its course.