A beginner’s guide to periods

What do you need to know about periods?


Emma Thornton
@AVogelUK


08 September 2016

So, let’s talk periods

Menstrual periods aren’t often a particularly hot topic of conversation, but the truth is, it’s something all us girls need to deal with and you need to know the facts!

You need to understand that they’re not so scary and they don’t have to be majorly inconvenient. I’ll admit you aren’t going to jump for joy when ‘Aunt Flo’ pays a visit when you’re on holiday or want to wear your favourite skimpy dress, but if you are in the know, you can easily manage your period and with any luck you’ll barely notice it’s made an appearance.

What is your period and why do you get it?

Your ovaries begin to release what we call sex hormones when you hit puberty. These have a whole host of functions to perform throughout your life: they help you develop sexually (you may notice your boobs are starting to take shape and you have hair sprouting in new places!) and they give you the opportunity to have a baby – when you’re good and ready that is!

So a hormone called oestrogen begins to rise in your body and when it peaks it triggers the release of an egg. This egg travels along your fallopian tube and if it makes contact with some sperm (if you’ve had unprotected sex around about the time this happens there’s likely to be some sperm hanging around) it becomes fertilized and you fall pregnant. As this egg is travelling along, another hormone called progesterone is busy rising in a bid to prepare your womb for the fertilized egg. It makes the lining of your womb thick and spongy, the perfect home for an egg to implant and grow.

However, what happens in the event that your egg doesn’t become fertilised and you don’t fall pregnant? In this case, your sex hormones abort mission as their job is done for now and they start to fall. The rapid decline in these hormones causes the lining of your womb to shed and this is what we call your period. The lining is shed and the blood comes out through your vagina over a course of a few days, simple! Then it starts all over again...

When will you start your period?

On average, girls nowadays start their period at around 12 years of age. However, girls can start as early as 8 years old or as late as 16. If you haven’t had your first period by age 16 it’s worth paying your doctor a visit to find out if there is a reason for this. There might not be, you might just simply be a late bloomer, but it’s always best to check.

Generally, you get some tell tale signs which suggest some changes are happening. This is good, though, if it helps you prepare a bit, right? So look out for your breasts starting to swell, the appearance of pubic hair and you may notice a clear/milky discharge coming from your vagina (sometimes you just notice a bit in your pants). These signs are perfectly normal and suggest your body is changing.

In the day or two just before your period you might experience some cramps, low down under your stomach. Often, when just starting your period this can be quite faint and you might find you just notice a slight twinge. However, as you get more periods month after month, cramps are likely to appear more. Although, they can give you some warning that it’s that time again which can be useful.

How much blood will you lose?

This is often a common a worry for girls, but don’t panic, it’s very unlikely there will be a powerful jet of blood shooting out of any part of you – so relax! The average woman loses 30-40ml in total over the course of their full period – that’s only 1 - 3 tablespoons over the course of 4 -5 days! Some girls may experience slightly heavier periods and if you feel they really are very heavy it’s worth paying your doctor a visit to see what they can suggest.

How can you prepare for your period and deal with it when it arrives?

So, once your first period arrives (and even beforehand, get prepared!) what supplies do you need?

Sanitary pads are a good place to start. These are absorbent pads that attach to your pants and soak up the blood you lose. They are surprisingly discrete (so don’t be paranoid anyone will know that you are using them), not to mention effective, they are super absorbent and you can get different absorbency ratings to suit your own flow. After a few cycles you should get a feel for how heavy or light periods are going to be. Generally, your period will be heaviest in the first few days and then start to tail off. You can adjust the type of sanitary products you are using to suit.

Once you are comfortable with sanitary towels, or straight away is perfectly fine, you might find you want to try out tampons! Tampons are inserted into the vagina where they sit and absorb the blood from your period before it leaks out of the body. A string remains hanging out of the vagina so you are able to easily remove it – don’t worry, it won’t get lost! Tampons are super discreet and are often a better option for both comfort and if you are doing sports, even swimming!

There are lots of other options too; often something more natural is a nice alternative. Click on the link to learn more about your options.

It is wise to have a little backup supply of sanitary products, perhaps in your makeup bag, or in a drawer or locker in school or work, this just means you won’t be caught off guard.

Will you get period pains and lots of other horrible symptoms?

It is common to get some cramp around the time of your period; this is a result of the muscles in the walls of your womb contracting so that the lining can be shed. Often the heavier your period, the worse the cramps as the thicker the lining, the more force that is required to push it out!

As your periods regulate you might also get other symptoms in the few days before your period is due which can include things like mood swings or sore breasts. These are a result of the falling levels of your hormones and most girls don’t get away without having any symptoms at all! However, if your symptoms are really getting you down or are quite severe, it’s worth paying your doctor a visit who can help advise you. Don’t suffer in silence!

What happens if my period starts but then stops again?

Irregular periods are normal too, especially when you’ve not long started. On average, a woman has a period every 28 days, but this is definitely just an average. Some cycles may be shorter, longer or they can vary from month to month. Generally, after several months (or years!) of starting, your body gets into a better routine and they become more regular.

There are however some reasons why a period may disappear and this is something to be aware of:

  • You’re pregnant
  • Being under or over weight
  • Different medication (always read the product information leaflet of any medication you take)
  • Stress

If in any doubt, take a pregnancy test or visit your doctor but do bear in mind your periods can take a while to settle so often this is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

It can also be really useful to keep track of your periods and you can do this with a period diary. This means each month you can make a note of what day you got your period, how long it lasted and any symptoms you experienced. This means you can refer back to this and determine how your periods are progressing month to month. You’ll feel more prepared and are more likely to pick up on any issues you might be having.

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Did you know?

Did you know the average age of starting your periods has changed? A 100 years ago, 16 was the average age for a girl to get her first period in the UK but now this has dropped to just 12! Incredible!

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