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Lets Talk Periods!

August 7, 2017

There are a lot of euphemisms for periods – on the blob, Aunt Flo, time of the month, the builders/painters are in, on the rag, surfing the crimson wave, and so on.  A survey by Clue with International Women’s Health Coalition in 2015 found over 5,000 different ways of stating you are having a period in over 190 countries.  No wonder that conversations about menstruation are seldom had if we can’t even bring ourselves to name it!

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We got The Talk™ in biology classes at school around age 12/13 but it was just the mechanics – egg expelled from ovary, travels down fallopian tube, and if it is not fertilised it implants in womb (uterus) lining which has thickened to accept the egg, and if no fertilisation has occurred then then egg and lining is shed, and it is this which is known as a period.  We were told you’ll lose about 4 and 12 teaspoonsful of blood on average (could be more, could be less).

As a result of minimal information given in an embarrassed lecture at which there was no opportunity to ask questions, I remember unfortunate incidences of bleeding through pads onto underwear, of being in agony (I occasionally had to take a day off school) but being unable to say why to the teacher, of random bursting into tears for no apparent reason and not knowing why, of never really knowing when I might start, and of other bodily changes occurring which none of us had any way of knowing was normal or not.  And that was just me!

So here is what might or might not happen once you start menstruating.  Bear in mind you might get all, some or none at all of the following, and at varying times in your life:

1.  You may find you fart a lot more than you usually do.  I am pretty sure no-one will have told you that!  However, as the uterus, cervix and vagina are all situated very closely to the bowel system, it should not surprise you to know it can have a knock-on effect.

2.  Diarrhoea is quite common during your period, as it’s opposite twin, constipation. See above for why!

3.  Cramps can be mild but they can also hurt a lot.  They are so common they even got a medical name – dysmenorrhoea. A hot water bottle relaxes the muscles and will ease the pain.  Muscle relaxant painkillers like ibuprofen can also help.

4.  Emotions may become heightened so it is perfectly normal to feel down and/or up, angry or sad or more loving. Everyone is different. 

5.  Aches and pains in your nipples and breasts, limbs, neck, all over your back, hips, and feeling more tired, weaker and being clumsier than at other times.  Sometimes you may vomit or feel nauseous.

6.  You might feel yourself ovulate (expel the egg from the ovary).  I didn’t at first, but have been able to for some time; it feels like a strong stabbing in either my right or left side on the front, then a cramping, then done.

7.  You may get cravings for chocolate, cake, any sweet things, or savoury foods such as crisps, either when ovulating or menstruating, or both, and this can last some time.

8.   Quite a lot of people feel a lot more sexual at this time, and sex during a period is not dirty, or icky, but extra exchange of fluid does put you at a higher risk of an STD and you can still get pregnant, so even though you are not at your most fertile, it is vital barrier contraception is used even during your period.  For some people, having an orgasm helps enormously with period cramping and pain.  Some people feel quite the opposite, and do not want to be touched during this time.  Others, it doesn’t affect one way or the other.

Remember, a lower risk does not mean no risk, and it only takes one sperm to penetrate the egg, so contraception is a must unless you are actually trying to have a baby!

9.  You may bloat around your middle, retaining water and finding your clothes are tighter, and your breasts may increase in size.

10.  You might get bad headaches, migraine or even cluster migraine.  This is the effect of hormonal changes in the body and is normal, although very painful.

11.  You may have an increase in itchiness around your vagina and in it before you start your period.  This is a change in the natural balance PH level and will die down when your period ends.

12. Your period can last from 2 to 10 days each time and you may even have a break during the bleed time, and the heaviness of your flow may vary from month to month.  If you feel more tired during this time it may be through a loss of iron in the blood causing anaemia.  If it is a regular thing, do talk to your GP to check it out – you might need iron supplements or to increase your intake of iron giving foods like red meats or dark green veg during your period (for more advice, click here) .

13.  A cycle is anything from 21 to 40 days – anything within this is normal and some have longer regular cycles.  You may have noticed by now, ‘normal’ has a very broad definition!

14.  The average age to first start menstruating (which is called the ‘menarche’) is between 10 and 14 years old based on current medical data.  However, earlier or later is not unheard of.  If your child starts before the age of 8, this is unusual and you should go to your GP to check for any problems as early onset puberty can indicate growth hormone problems.  Likewise if you or your child have not shown any signs of starting their period soon, such as budding breasts and/or the appearance underarm hair or pubic hair, or an increase in sweating and possibly development of body odour, by the age of 16 it might be worth getting checked out.  Remember though, when you first start menstruating and when you begin to stop, your periods will be erratic.

15.  There are a lot of products that you can use during your period to prevent blood on your underwear – sanitary towels and tampons have different strengths/sizes for different flows.  Moon/diva/menstrual cups are designed to be inserted into your vagina to catch the blood, and need to be emptied and cleaned before reinsertion, in the same way sanitary products need to be changed regularly.  You can buy recyclable sanitary towels which are washed and reused.  Use what suits you best, and know this may change over time as your body changes and gets older.

It is VERY important to change tampons regularly and never leave one it for more than 8 hours (one sleep) because this can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, which can in very rare circumstances be fatal.  It’s rare, but does happen.  A child friendly explanation is in the Resources section at the end of this blog as well as here.

16.   If you have an eating disorder or condition this can stop periods and have devastating long term effects on your body quite apart from lack of periods and infertility.  Please seek help from your parent/teacher/friends/caregiver and/or medical professional, if you have not already.

17. You can take the pill which you may be prescribed by a medical professional to deal with any, some or all of the problems you suffer with your period – it’s not always prescribed for contraception.  The pill works by fooling your body into thinking it is pregnant, and there are several types of pill so you may try more than one before finding the best that suits you.  You can also take the pill non-stop (do take advice first though) to prevent the 28-day cycle of bleeding.

18. Discharges are very common; you may have a brownish discharge close to the time of your period, or you may have a clear, slightly creamy/yellowish viscous discharge at odd times.  This is all perfectly normal.  There is a natural, iron-y smell to periods so if anyone tells you it’s not normal to have a slight odour, they are wrong.  Any strong smell which persists should be checked out for signs of vaginal infection.  If you have pain when peeing or itchiness around the vagina which persists for a few weeks, you may have a urine infection such as cystitis or vaginal infection such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush.  All normal, not signs of sexual activity (although vaginal infections can be passed between partners) and you should get checked out by your GP as they are common and easy to treat.

19. As you get older, your cycle may change.  What was normal for you as a teenager will change into what is normal for a young adult will change into what is normal for a 25-45 year old adult will change into what is normal for a menopausal (usually but not always 50+) adult, and each will be normal for you and not necessarily anyone let alone everyone else!  Unfortunately this may mean the acne or pimples you suffered from as a teenager may come back, or if you have them now, they may go away.  Hormones are playful little things!

20.  A change in your regular pattern of periods (if you have one) should be checked out by your GP as it can have other implications for your health. Click on links within each for more information.  For example:

  • Amenorrhoea is defined medically as a lack of menstruation for a three-month or longer period in a person who had prior to that had a ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ cycle.
  • Oligomenorrhoea is when you have few light periods – this is quite common in athletes and those who do a lot of physical exercise. It is also linked to PCOS and can indicate perimenopause (early signs of menopause and the stopping of periods completely).  It is simply a medical term and unless it is accompanied by other changes or as part of another diagnosis, is not something to worry about.
  • Adenomyosis.  This is an increase in blood flow and/or length of period and/or pain experienced, and such changes persisting for several months.  It would be easy to dismiss as possibly entering perimenopause, but if you are still in your 30s or 40s this should be checked out by your GP.  It might be early menopause but it might not, and simple blood tests can sort out which.
  • Clotting – one or two clots is fine as this is the egg being shed. However, more than that should be checked out by your GP.
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – I was diagnosed with this after a blood test showed elevated levels of androgens in my system, after my periods had gone from a regular 36-day cycle to very erratic, to by the time. There are treatments if you choose to take them; it can cause fertility problems, weight gain and hirsuteness (hairiness).
  • Endometriosis – this is when the lining of your womb sticks to other parts of your body, and causes extremely horrible period pains outside your womb, where the blood being flushed from the lining has nowhere to go.
  • Fibroids are non-cancerous growths in the womb which can make periods very painful and heavy. They can be removed with surgery.

There are a lot of medical terms related to periods but this does not mean it is anything to worry about, or is not normal, or indicates in any way that you must stop enjoying your life in the way you already do.  If you are at all worried do see your GP or Practice Nurse, or even chat to your pharmacist, as they will be able to put your mind at rest.

21. It is also very normal not to experience any of the above.  Some people just bleed for a few days in a regular cycle, and nothing else happens.  I’m starting to think we need a new word for normal when discussing periods!

If anyone tells you that you can’t do something because you are on your period, or assumes that your reaction to something is because you are hormonal, or dismisses you in any way because of your period, remind them that non-menstrual people have regular hormonal cycles too.  24-hour or more, irregular cycles with moods rising up and down.  Just because it is not shown by bleeding every so often does not mean it is not there!



Thanks to the following for their comments, information, wise words and laughs in writing this blog:
Bella, Kate, Michelle, Mandy, Jessie, Griselda, Alix, Naomi B, Genevieve, Jules, Gill, Sue, Mikey, Elaine, Janice, Lois, Emily, Anya, Lynne, Emma J, Emma B, Rachel, Kirsty, Cheryl, Paula, Elaine, Anna, Riven, Samantha, Alex, Lauren, Awanthi, Sally, Guinevere, Melissa, Naomi M, Carol, Lee, Lucy, Dawn, Gaynor.

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