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Periods

When will they start? Will they hurt? Will there be lots of blood? 

Most people have lots of questions about periods and we hope to answer some of them here.

At some point between the ages of 8 and 17, a girl will start to have periods. This is also known as menstruation. The average age to start is 11, and most people’s periods will have started by age 14. Every month, the ovaries release an egg - this is called ovulation. If this egg is not fertilised by a sperm, it is shed through the vagina along with the lining of the womb, and this is what period blood is. A period will usually last for two to seven days. 

What is a menstrual cycle?

A menstrual cycle starts on the day that you get your period and lasts until the day before you get your next one. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days, but it can be a bit longer or shorter for some people. 

When people talk about their period – they are usually referring to the bleeding which is the most visible part of the menstrual cycle, but it’s just one stage in a whole process that the body goes through every month in order to prepare for getting pregnant.

Every month, your womb or uterus (which is the space where a foetus (baby) develops) builds up its lining in order to prepare for getting pregnant. This lining, mostly made up of blood, is what is shed when your period starts. This is why your periods stop when you become pregnant – the womb lining is used to provide nutrients to the growing foetus, instead. 

What is ovulation?

A woman's ovaries release an egg (sometimes two) around 14 days after the first day of her period, or 10-16 days before the start of her next period. The egg travels down the fallopian tubes, which connect the ovaries to the womb. Once released, the egg lives for around 24 hours. If it is not fertilised, it is shed via a period, along with the womb lining. 

How often should a period happen?

Most people who get periods have one every four to five weeks. You may like to keep a diary or use an app to track how often you get yours. Some people have regular periods, and can predict exactly when their next period is due. Other people have irregular periods, which mean they cannot predict when their next period is due. If you are worried about your periods, you can speak to a doctor or nurse. 

It’s quite common for people’s periods to be irregular when they first start having them, then for them to become more regular as they get older. 

What does period blood look like and how much comes out?

Period blood can be any colour from pink to red to brown. Sometimes period blood can be quite thick and other times it can be watery. This is all normal and you may notice your blood looks different at the start and end of your period. You may get blood clots, too – these are also perfectly normal and nothing to worry about, unless there’s a lot more of them than usual. 

The blood that is shed during a period is usually around three to five tablespoons’ worth altogether, or around 50-90ml – though it sometimes feels like it’s more than that! 

When you get a period, it's normal for the bleeding to stop and start. For example, you may bleed for a few hours, and then stop bleeding for a few hours. Or you may stop bleeding all through the night, or all through one day, but then it will start again. Sometimes you’ll think it’s all over, then there’s one final wave. Everyone’s period is slightly different! 

Sometimes, your period may be lighter than normal – sometimes it may be heavier than usual. Lots of things can affect how light or heavy a period is, so don’t worry too much if it changes from cycle to cycle! But if your period is significantly lighter or heavier than usual, for several cycles, you can ask a doctor or nurse for advice. And if you get a lot of pain during your period, make sure to tell a doctor, so you can get help. 

All my friends have started their period and I haven't. What's wrong with me?

Periods can start at any time between the ages of 8 and 17. Most people’s first period takes place between the ages of 10 and 14, but some won't start until they are 17. Everyone develops at different rates. To reassure you, you will more than likely get your period at some point. Meanwhile, you can enjoy not having to use tampons and sanitary pads!

It is important to remember that you can still get pregnant before you have your first period. Some young women can release eggs for several months before bleeding starts. As it is impossible to predict when a woman will first ovulate, having unprotected sex before a first period can sometimes result in a pregnancy. 

I've just started my period and I don't know what to do!

Don’t panic! You will need to get yourself a sanitary towel, or a tampon, to absorb the blood. You can buy these in supermarkets, corner shops and chemists, or you can see your school/college nurse or welfare officer, and they should have some for you to use. Toilets in lots of public places often have a towel and/or tampon vending machine. If you can – it is probably a good idea to have a chat with a member of your family about periods and that you will need to have some supplies in – before you start your periods, you can then carry these in your bag just in case.

If you’re buying period supplies, there’s no need to be embarrassed – they’re perfectly normal products, and many millions of people menstruate, after all! You can ask your parents or carers to buy you supplies regularly, too, once you’ve found the product or combination of products that works best for you

What should I use during my period?

There’s a few options – you can mix and match, or just use one!

Tampons are small tubes of soft cotton which has been pressed together. They have a string attached to one end so you can pull them out after use. They can either come with an applicator (a plastic or cardboard tube used to help put them in), or without an applicator – make sure to check the box to see which kind it is. Tampons are inserted into your vagina, using either the applicator, or your fingers. It can be tricky to learn how to use tampons at first, but it gets easier with practice! They can be kept in for up to eight hours at a time and come in different sizes, from light to heavy flow, for different times during your period. 

Tampons are invisible once they’re in, and their small size means they’re easy to keep in your bag or pocket until you need them. But sometimes people find them hard to put in (see the section below - I've tried to use tampons, but I can't put one in.

Pads (sanitary towels) are liners made of materials which soak up liquids, which you can use to line your knickers and ‘catch’ blood as it flows out. Like tampons, they come in a variety of different absorbencies – that is, some of them are designed for use when your period is really heavy, and some for when it’s lighter, like at the end of your period. 

Pads can be simpler to use than tampons, as there’s no need to put anything into your vagina. But sometimes they can leak if your flow is really heavy, so make sure to change them regularly. You can’t use a pad if you go swimming, either.

With pads and tampons, make sure to go for unscented versions, as perfumes can irritate the sensitive skin of your vulva. 

Both tampons and pads should not be disposed of in the toilet as they can cause blockages. Some toilets have special sanitary disposal bins, or you can wrap the tampon / pad in toilet paper and then put into the nearest bin available.

Menstrual cups are small containers made of a flexible material like rubber or silicone, which – like a tampon – are inserted into the vagina to catch blood and stop it flowing out. Unlike tampons, they are reusable – you just empty the blood out of the cup, wash it, and reinsert it. 

They’re good for environmentally conscious people as they involve less waste than tampons and pads, and you only need to buy one once, rather than getting new supplies for every cycle. But on the other hand, they can be difficult to learn to use, cleaning them in a public toilet (like at school or work) may be difficult or embarrassing, and they cost more money in one go than a packet of tampons or pads.

Is it safe to use tampons?

Yes, tampons are really safe. There is an association between using tampons and toxic shock syndrome (TSS). However, due to changes in the way tampons are made, TSS is extremely rare nowadays. All tampon packets should contain a leaflet that tells you the warning signs of TSS, and what to do if you notice these symptoms. The risk of getting TSS can be reduced by using tampons with the lowest absorbency necessary for your blood flow, and never keeping a tampon in for longer than you need to.

I've tried to use tampons, but I can't put one in

The most important thing is to relax as much as you can. If you are feeling tense, nervous, or anxious about using a tampon, this can make it difficult or uncomfortable to insert a tampon into the vagina. The key is to take deep breaths and relax!

There should be an instruction leaflet in the packet, which shows you how to insert a tampon at a certain angle, so that it goes in comfortably. You might find that putting one leg on a chair or the toilet seat will help you to get the right angle, and make the opening of the vagina easier to access. Some women like to use a small hand held mirror, to help them see where to put the tampon. 

You may like to try using a smaller size tampon, as this can make insertion easier. Some young women find mini tampons easier to use than regular or super sized tampons - you may like to experiment with different sizes, or tampons with applicators. Take your time, relax, follow the instructions in the packet, and you should manage fine! 

How often do I need to change my tampon?

It is important to use a tampon that is the right absorbency for you. Always choose a tampon with the lowest absorbency necessary for your blood flow.

If your tampon leaks, then you have either left it in too long, or you need to try a higher absorbency. If your tampon doesn't come out easily, or it feels uncomfortable when you pull it out, this can mean that it hasn't soaked enough blood yet, so leave it in a bit longer. If your tampon is still difficult to remove after four to six hours, switch to using a lower absorbency tampon.

Aim to take a tampon out every four to six hours, depending on your flow. It is safe to wear a tampon overnight, but it's important to take it out as soon as you wake up in the morning.

What are the side-effects of periods?

One of the biggest effects of getting your period is called pre-menstrual syndrome or tension (PMS, PMT). You can start to experience the symptoms of PMS up to two weeks before you start your period. No one knows exactly what causes PMS, but it’s thought to be linked to changes in hormone levels caused by the menstrual cycle.

PMS can have different symptoms – physical (breast pain, cramps or muscle pain, spots, an upset stomach, diarrhoea or constipation), and emotional (mood swings, feeling more irritable, having trouble concentrating, or anxiety). You might have none, some, or all of these symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms last through your period, or you may find they disappear when you start to bleed. 

I get really bad pain before or during my period. What should I do?

Unfortunately, a lot of people do experience cramp-like pains in their lower stomach when they have their period. This is caused by the womb muscles contracting. Some people also get back pain, or pain down their legs, and some can feel sick.

It can be helpful to take a painkiller (such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin) as soon as you start to notice any pain, so that you can get the pain under control before it gets too bad. Be sure to always follow the instructions about how many painkillers you can take within a certain period of time, as it is possible to overdose even if you take one tablet too many.

Some people find that putting a hot water bottle on their stomach, having a hot bath, or going for a brisk walk can ease the pain.

If you find that you are in a lot of pain before or during your period, and nothing seems to ease it, it is important that you speak to a doctor or nurse, to check that everything is OK, and get advice on how to manage the pain. 

How will my periods be affected by contraception?

Some methods of contraception can affect your periods and make them more regular, lighter, heavier, or stop altogether. Some nurses and doctors do not refer to periods when you use hormonal contraception however you may hear the doctor or nurse ask you about your ‘bleeding’ pattern. This is because some methods of contraception will stop the ‘period’ but you may still bleed. We've included below an overview of the methods of contraception that have an affect on your periods:

  • The combined pill: when taking the combined pill you have a pill-free week, or a week when you are taking the placebo (dummy) pills, and during this week you will get a bleed. This isn’t a proper period, but is called a ‘withdrawal bleed’ (which doesn’t always happen) and is caused by you not taking hormones in the pill-free week. This can happen at any point during this pill-free week, and you should start your next pack on time whether or not you are still bleeding.
  • The progestogen-only pill (POP): your periods may become irregular. They may happen more often, less often, be lighter or stop altogether. You may also get spotting in between periods. This isn’t harmful and may settle down. If you have concerns seek advice. The POP pill can also help with painful periods and premenstrual symptoms.
  • IUD (intrauterine device): you may have irregular bleeding patterns during the first few months of using the IUD. For some women their periods are heavier, longer or more painful. While using the IUD you can use tampons and/or towels.
  • IUS (intrauterine system): your periods are likely to become lighter, shorter or they may stop altogether. If you do get periods while using the IUS you can use tampons and/or towels.
  • The contraceptive patch: at some point during your patch-free week most women will have a bleed. This isn’t a proper period, it is called a 'withdrawal bleed' (which doesn’t always happen) and it can start at any point during the seven-day break. This bleeding is brought on by the reduction in hormones, from not wearing a patch during the seven-day break. This can happen at any point during this patch-free week, and you should start using your next patch on time whether or not you are still bleeding.
  • The contraceptive implant: may cause an irregular bleeding pattern, and your periods may be irregular, longer or they may stop all together. This usually settles down after the first year of using the contraceptive implant. 
  • The contraceptive injection: may cause an irregular bleeding pattern, and your periods may be irregular, heavier, and longer or they may stop altogether. 
  • The contraceptive vaginal ring: at some point during your ring-free week most women will have a bleed. This isn’t a proper period, it is called a 'withdrawal bleed' (which doesn’t always happen) and it can start at any point during the seven-day interval. This bleeding is brought on by the reduction in hormones, from not wearing a ring during the seven-day interval. This can happen at any point during this ring-free interval, and you should start using your next ring on time whether or not you are still bleeding. You can use both towels and tampons whilst using the contraceptive vaginal ring.

In the first few months of using contraceptive methods with hormones there can be some breakthrough bleeding or spotting. This should settle down after around three months. However it is also important to check that the bleeding is not due to any other cause, such as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is recommended that you discuss any concerns that you may have regarding the changes to your bleeding pattern with your nurse or doctor.  They will offer you a test for an STI and it might be possible to give some additional medication that can help with the bleeding.

I get really heavy periods and keep leaking, what can I do?

If your periods are very heavy, you may like to try using a higher absorbency sanitary towel or tampon. For example, if you are using a regular size tampon or pad, you could try switching to super size instead. Some women like to use both a tampon and a sanitary pad or panty liner. This can give you extra reassurance and peace of mind that you will not leak. Also, you can get sanitary pads with wings either side, which stick to your knickers, to help keep the pad in place and prevent leakages onto your knickers.

Leakages can be embarrassing, but everyone who gets a period will have experienced this at some point. It can take time to try out different things but, to reassure you, with experience you will get confident in knowing how to manage your periods better so you don't get any more leakages. 

My periods are irregular. What can I do?

There are lots of reasons why your periods might be irregular. Weight loss or gain, stress, and exercising a lot can all make them less regular, and also affect how light or heavy they are. 

After you get your period for the first ever time, it can take a while for it to ‘settle down’ into a regular cycle. You might get your first period, then not have another one for the next six months, for example! 

If your irregular periods are getting you down, you can talk to a doctor or nurse to get their advice. Your overall physical health and mental health affects your cycle, so it might be that irregular periods are a symptom of something else. Don’t be afraid to try and find out what that is, and to get help if you need it. 

Is it safe to have sex on my period?

It’s perfectly safe from a health point of view to have sex on your period – although you can still get pregnant as a result! So make sure to use contraception, if you don’t want to get pregnant, and to use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted infections. Period sex can sometimes get messy, too, because of the blood – so think about putting down an old towel first to soak up any escaping fluids! 

Technically, a woman is more likely to become pregnant at a certain time of the month, during ovulation, but it’s impossible to tell when you will next ovulate. This is because your menstrual cycle can vary from month to month. Also, sperm can live in your body for up to seven days, which means it is high risk to have unprotected sex up to seven days before ovulation. Always use a method of contraception, even when you are on your period.

I have missed my last period, could I be pregnant?

That depends if you have had any unprotected sex or contraception failure. Remember, if you have had unprotected sex within the last five days you can use emergency contraception.

If you have had unprotected sex or sexual contact more than five days ago and have missed you period you may need to take a pregnancy test (these can be done 21 days after having unprotected sex or contraception failure). You can get a pregnancy test free of charge from:

  
If you haven't had any unprotected sex or sexual contact, then your period may be late for a variety of reasons. Every menstrual cycle can change from month to month. A change in diet, ill health, travel, and stress are just some of the things that can make a period come late, or not at all.

I think I might be pregnant, but I'm still getting my periods.

Most pregnant people don’t get periods. However, if you have noticed that your periods are shorter or lighter than normal this can be a sign of pregnancy. There’s also something called implantation bleeding which can happen during pregnancy – after the egg is fertilised and attaches itself to the womb lining, some bleeding may happen. Sometimes, people mistake implantation bleeding for a period and don’t realise they’re pregnant. Implantation bleeding happens between 6 to 12 days after ovulation, while a period usually starts 10 to 16 days after ovulation, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. The only way to find out for sure if you’re pregnant is by taking a pregnancy test.

The menopause

After several decades, your fertility (ability to have children) will fade away and eventually stop. At the same time, your periods will become irregular, then stop. This is called the menopause, and usually happens when someone gets to their mid to late 40s, but in rare cases it can happen at a younger age. If you’re worried, you can talk to your doctor or nurse.

Page last reviewed: November 2015
Next review due: November 2016