When it comes to menstruation, it’s important to understand what is a normal and what isn’t. Menstruation is a natural part of puberty and adulthood for most women; however, it is still something that remains misunderstood.

For some, puberty and menstruation may begin as early as 8 years old, while for others it may not occur until the age of 16. For most women, however, their first menstrual cycle will begin around the age of 12.

A woman’s menstrual cycle can change dramatically throughout the course of their life, and no two women are the same. What is completely normal for one may be a warning sign for another. It is important to understand and know your body so you can notice when it is trying to tell you that something is wrong.

Without the use of birth control, intrauterine devices (IUDs), or other devices or medications that stop the menstrual cycle from happening, the average woman will experience their period once a month until they reach the age that menopause begins. On average, this is in the late 30s to early 40s, although some may not reach menopause until their 50s.

What is the Menstrual Cycle?

The menstrual cycle is a series of changes that a woman’s body goes through monthly in preparation for pregnancy. A woman will first ovulate, or release an egg from her fallopian tubes, which will then implant itself in the lining of the uterus while it waits to be fertilized. During this time, the body will go through hormonal changes that anticipate pregnancy and help the body prepare.

If the egg is not fertilized within a certain amount of time, the uterine lining will begin to shed out itself and the unfertilized egg through the cervix. This shedding is what causes most cramps during a normal period. The shedding will continue until all the previous material is gone, and then it will begin the cycle again.

Typically, a woman’s cycle will fall between 21-35 days apart, however, that may not be the case for those with irregular periods.

In the case of an irregular period, a woman’s body may not have a period every month, or if they do it may vary in length and severity each time. For most menstrual cycles, they will last between 2-7 days and the flow will start off light before increasing slightly then decreasing toward the end.

If you are over 16 years old and haven’t started your period yet consult a healthcare provider. There may be a medical reason such as an over or underactive thyroid to blame.

There are also medications like birth control or other contraceptive devices (including IUDs) that can alter or completely stop your period from happening. Make sure that you understand what can happen when you begin using these contraceptives and know that it is completely normal to not have a period when on certain ones.

What Are Normal Period Symptoms?

While unpleasant, there are many symptoms that are completely normal to experience during your period. These include:

  • Moodiness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Food cravings
  • Cramps in lower back and abdomen
  • Bloating
  • Breast tenderness and swelling
  • Acne

All these symptoms can be managed through over the counter pain medications and rest for most people. If you are experiencing these symptoms and can’t seem to get relief during your menstrual cycle, talk with your healthcare provider.

Why Should I Track My Menstrual Cycles?

It is important to regularly track your menstrual cycle because it helps to alert you if anything seems out of the ordinary. In addition, it can help your healthcare provider determine if everything is alright, if you could possibly be pregnant, or if you may have another condition that is interfering with the hormone regulation that controls your menstrual cycle.

Tracking your period is easy. Simply mark the day that you begin your period and the day that you end it each month. There are also mobile apps that make the process hassle-free.

These mobile apps also allow you to track your symptoms, if you have a light or heavy flow, pain levels, and even abnormal bleeding or spotting between your periods. By keeping a detailed record of what your periods are normally like, it can help alert and give you an early warning when something is wrong.

In many cases such as ovarian cancer or uterine polyps, early detection, prevention, and treatment are essential to getting the best outcome possible.

What Causes Irregularities in Menstrual Cycles?

There are several things that can cause your period to be occasionally irregular and missing an occasional period or having your regular cycle be slightly off is usually nothing to worry about. Some of the most common causes of irregularities are stress, a sudden change in diet, breast feeding, and extreme fitness.

In some cases, there may be a more severe underlying cause to your sudden irregularity. These include:

  • Eating disorders (such as bulimia or anorexia)
  • Excessive weight loss or weight gain (especially over a short period of time)
  • PCOS
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
  • Uterine Fibroids
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Certain medications

If you have noticed that your periods are suddenly irregular and you have not made any significant changes to diet, lifestyle, or your sleep schedule, then speak with your healthcare provider.

What Are Some Signs to Watch for?

While everyone’s period is different, there are a few universal signs and symptoms that could mean that something is wrong. Some things to watch out for are:

  • No period for 90 days (if you know that you aren’t pregnant)
  • Sudden irregularity if your period has always been normal
  • If you’re bleeding for longer than 7 days
  • If you soak through a pad or tampon in less than 2 hours
  • You notice quarter sized blood clots when you use the toilet
  • If your periods are less than 21 days apart or more than 35 days apart
  • Bleeding or heavy spotting between periods or after intercourse
  • Severe and debilitating pain during your period or the days leading up to it
  • If you get a fever or feel seriously ill after using a tampon (may be a sign of toxic shock syndrome (TSS))

While these are the major things to look for, also be aware of what is normal and abnormal for your body. If you notice any of these symptoms, speak with your healthcare provider.