In most women, the ‘menstrual cycle’ happens over 28 days, starting with the first day of your period. With each cycle your body prepares the lining of your uterus to create the ideal environment for a possible pregnancy.
Why do we have periods?
Your menstrual cycle is the time between one period and the next. Every month there is a complex interaction between the pituitary gland in the brain, the ovaries and the uterus (or womb). Messages and hormones are being passed around the body to prepare it for a possible pregnancy. An egg is produced, the lining of the uterus thickens up, hormones prepare the vagina and the cervix to accept and support sperm. When pregnancy doesn't occur, the egg is absorbed back into the body and the thick lining in the uterus is shed, this is your period. Then the cycle begins all over again.
- Day one of your cycle is the first day of your period. This is when your uterus starts shedding the lining it has built up over the last 28 days.
- After your period is over, the lining of your uterus starts to build up again to become a thick and spongy ‘nest’ in preparation for a possible pregnancy.
- On day 14 (for most women), one of your ovaries will release an egg, which will make its way through a fallopian tube and will eventually make its way to your uterus (called ovulation).
- On day 28 (for most women), if you have not become pregnant, the lining of your uterus starts to shed. This is your period. The blood you lose during your period is the lining of your uterus.
The menstural cycle
If you have sex during a cycle, and your egg meets a sperm, you can become pregnant. When you’re pregnant, you don’t get your period.
Is a cycle always 28 days?
The average cycle is 28 days but, for some women, it is as short as 21 days, for others it is as long as 35 days. When you first start having periods, it can also take a while before your periods develop a regular pattern. Your cycle also changes as you get older.
Your menstruation cycle (and period) stops temporarily when you are pregnant. Breastfeeding also affects your cycle. At the end of menopause, your cycle stops permanently.
What does a period feel like?
Some women will have pain in their belly (the lower abdomen). This can be a crampy pain or just a mild ache. You may have lower backache on its own or with the pain in your belly. The pain can often be stronger on the first day or two of your period and will vary in strength and severity from one women to another. Some women also have a headache or feel very tired just before their period arrives or on the first day. Mood changes, teariness and easily losing your temper can sometimes be an indicator that you are getting your period, this is referred to as premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or premenstrual tension (PMT). For some women this can be so overwhelming that they are unable to go about their normal lives. Any symptoms that you find hard to manage should be investigated with your GP.
Many women have no symptoms at all. It is not uncommon for women to notice that they have their period only after they have gone to the toilet and found that there is blood on their underpants or on their toilet paper.
Even without overwhelming symptoms, some women still find it comforting to simply take time out when they get their period, and cuddle up with a hot water bottle.
Adolescent girls and women can both experience skin changes and pimples with their periods.
What to do when you get your period
Before you start getting periods it is good to be prepared for when it eventually comes. Hopefully you will have an opportunity to talk with your mother or sister or someone else in your family who can help you to prepare. Meanwhile here are some tips for when you do start bleeding.
- Use period products like a pad, tampon, menstrual cup or period underwear to absorb the bleeding. Pads and liners are longs strips of cotton that you stick to your underwear. Tampons are thin cylinders of dense cotton attached to a string that you put inside your vagina. Pads, liners and tampons come in different shapes and sizes. Pads should be changed every four to five hours to stop leakage. You can use a tampon whenever you want, you don't have to wait until you start having sex before a tampon will go in. It may be a little hard to get it in to begin with, but you will get used to it very quickly. Tampons should be changed every three to four hours. Menstrual cups should be changed about every eight hours and period underwear can be washed out at the end of the day.
- Keep a ‘period kit’ somewhere handy. This is because you might get your period unexpectedly or forget it’s due. Keeping some painkillers, period products and a spare pair of underpants in your bag, at school or at work can be a lifesaver.
- Enjoy life as much as possible. It’s safe and often possible to do all the things you would normally do. It’s also okay to have sex when you have your period, but if you’re using a tampon you’ll need to take it out first.
If you have period pain you can take painkillers that you can buy over the counter at the chemist. If your pain isn’t relieved with regular painkillers, visit your GP (your local doctor).
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