What are menstrual periods?
Periods are the loss of vaginal discharge and blood which occurs in women every month, when they are not pregnant.
Every female has eggs in her ovaries and when puberty begins one egg (or sometimes two) will be released each month as a result of brain and hormone triggers, which are chemical messengers which move around in the blood stream.
The egg is released from the ovaries, which are small sacs in the lower abdomen, is wafted along the Fallopian tube and reaches the uterus, or womb.
The womb will have prepared a thick and spongy lining, meanwhile, in preparation for the egg being fertilised by male sperm and pregnancy.
If a pregnancy does not occur then the lining is no longer needed and the lining will be released along with the egg, which is invisible to the human eye. The lining of the uterus leaves the body through the cervix and out of the vagina.
This is known as a period or menstruation or ‘coming on’.
What does a period look like?
The lining looks red initially, like blood and then becomes brown on the 3rd or 4th day.
Occasionally women may pass clots of blood, which look like red/black lumps.
How often do we have them?
Most women have a period every 28 days, day 1 being the day the bleeding starts, day 28 being the last day before the next period begins. This is an average menstrual cycle. Anything between 21-35 days is usually normal.
Why do we have them?
We have periods because our body no longer needs the lining of the uterus or the unfertilised egg. This leaves our body, ready for a new cycle to begin, whereby the womb produces a new lining and a fresh egg is released.
When do we not have periods?
The most common reason for a missed period is pregnancy. The fertilised egg will become a cluster of cells and will attach to the lining of the womb to form the baby and placenta.
A missed period may also occur due to stress or severe weight loss. Always have it checked out.
How long do they last?
Periods last anything from 2-7 days, with the average length being 5 days. The first couple of days will be heavier and the last couple of days the flow will often be very light.
What products can I use?
There are 3 main products that can be used for periods:
They are made from absorbent material which absorbs the vaginal discharge/blood and is removed using a string which is attached firmly. They are great for sport and are very discreet. They should be changed every 2-6 hours, depending on how heavy the blood flow is and should not ever be left in for more than 8 hours, due to risk of infection. They come in different sizes and it is advised to use the smallest one possible.
Sanitary towels or pads are stuck onto the knickers (they used to be held in place using a belt) and the blood is absorbed onto them, outside the body. They too come in different sizes, with and without wings, which some people prefer as they help to keep the pad in place. Some pads are very thin and discreet. Check out the selection at the supermarket or pharmacy.
Liners are very thin stick-on pads, designed for the very light days at the end of the period. Some women also wear them when their period is due or between periods if they have a heavier vaginal discharge (the normal yellow/white discharge can be heavier around the time of ovulation). These come in different shapes to accommodate G strings.
A few tips
Always place your sanitary products in the bin – do not flush them down the toilet as this will damage our environment.
If you use tampons, consider wearing a sanitary pad at night. Rarely women can get a serious infection from tampons (toxic shock syndrome), so wearing a pad at night may reduce this risk.
If at first you don’t have much success with inserting tampons, try another brand. Most women have a strong preference either to ‘with applicator’ or ‘without applicator’. See which one suits you best.
What will it feel like?
Periods can take some getting used to!
When the period first begins you will occasionally feel a trickle of fluid come out of your vagina. The flow is not continuous and it will be heavier when you first get up in the morning.
Some women experience pain or cramps on the first couple of days, which are usually settled with exercise, a hottie or a couple of paracetamol. Talk to your doctor if these cramps interfere with your lifestyle.
Many women get no pain or cramps – lucky them!
Will other people know?
Other people will only know if you tell them.
When do they start?
The onset of menstrual periods is called the menarche and usually occurs at 12-13 years. Anything from 9-16 is also normal.
When do they finish?
When a woman stops having periods this is called the menopause. Commonly this happens at 45-55 years. There are great variations. Some women see this as a release, for others it is a time of adjustment as they approach their declining fertility.
Periods are no big deal. We all have them. It is our mark of fertility and most young women are secretly proud when their periods begin.
For more information on the Menopause, click here
Mums, Daughters and Periods contains great tips for sharing information on women’s health with our children