The ultimate guide to periods


Got questions about 'that time of the month'? Find your answers here

The majority of women will have to deal with periods throughout the majority of their adult life. Apart from the physical side to things, your period can also have a big impact on your emotions. 

Because of this, we've written a guide to everything you need to know about periods, so you can find the answer to any questions you may have.

So what is a period?

Menstruation - or a 'period' - describes the breakdown of the endometrium (uterine lining) that occurs roughly once a month. The follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), oestrogen and progesterone are the four main hormones that control menstrual cycles.

People often use a lot of euphemisms to describe periods, which you've probably heard at some point before. Here are the favourites:

  • 'that time of the month'
  • 'on the rag'
  • 'riding the crimson wave'
  • 'the monthly bleed'
  • And just plain old 'being on'.

Your first period

The average age for a first period is twelve, but for most women it usually occurs between the ages of 9 and 16. The length of time that a period usually lasts is between two and seven days, and the menstrual flow can be very light or rather heavy, with the heaviest flow usually in the first two days.

About six months or so before getting your first period, you may notice an increase in clear vaginal discharge, which is totally normal. You will usually feel a bit of discomfort in your lower stomach or back just before you're due to 'come on', so make sure you have gentle painkillers and a hot water bottle on-hand.

Although it might feel like you lose a lot of blood during your period, it’s usually only a few spoonfuls of blood, so there’s no need to worry about excessive blood loss. However, some women may bleed much more heavily and become slightly anaemic if their period lasts too long. If you feel unusually light-headed or fear you're losing too much blood, do consult a doctor.

Cramps or 'period pain'

Cramping in your lower stomach is quite common, especially during the first few days of a period. However, this can vary between cycles, and will also change as you get older or if you start using hormonal contraception.

Cramps, or 'period pains', are believed to be caused by uterine muscle contractions. Some can be mild and just a bit annoying, but others can be intensely painful, and you may start to feel them in your back also.

This pain can be relieved by over-the-counter painkillers, like ibuprofen or paracetamol, and a warm bath or heat-pad on your stomach or lower back can do wonders.

If you find the pain becomes unbearable and nothing helps to alleviate it, you may want to consult your doctor for a more long-term solution.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is brought on by higher, fluctuating hormone levels just before or during your period. Whilst some women can experience it very intensely, others find themselves barely affected by it - if at all.

Common symptoms of PMS include fun things like:

  • mood swings, irritability or mild depression
  • acne or mild breakouts
  • bloating
  • fatigue
  • backache
  • sore breasts
  • headaches
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • cravings for certain foods.

Due to an increased responsiveness to insulin and low blood-glucose levels, you may find yourself drawn to a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk. Whilst there's nothing wrong with snaffling some of the good stuff, a diet of complex carbohydrates like wholewheat, fruits and vegetables can help to counteract the glucose-level fluctuations. Gentle exercise, meditation and restricting caffeine consumption can also help to relieve PMS symptoms.

woman hiding behind calendar

Sanitary protection

There's a variety of sanitary products available these days, with each having its pros and cons. It's a good idea to try a variety of products, as you may find a specific product works especially well for you and makes your cycle a lot less stressful.

Most younger girls start off with sanitary towels or 'pads'. These are non-intrusive and an easy go-to, but they're also quite wasteful and aren't great for physical activity. An alternative is to use tampons, which are slightly more discreet and convenient for sport and swimming. Some women choose to wear tampons during the day and pads at night, as a tampon should be changed every 4-8 hours. 

Here's a couple of tips for using tampons:

  • use the lightest tampon possible for your flow (don't use a 'super absorbent' for your lightest day)
  • use 100% cotton tampons as synthetic fibres can cause irritation
  • be careful when inserting a tampon - plastic applicators can increase the risk of lacerations
  • use a water-soluble lubricant if your vagina seems dry
  • try to swap between pads and tampons during each period to give yourself a break.

A newer form of sanitary protection becoming increasingly popular is the menstrual cup. This is a reusable cup made from soft silicone rubber that's worn inside you, like a tampon. If used and cared for correctly, a menstrual cup can last for years, which is cost-effective and a lot less harmful to the environment. You can read more about the menstrual cups here.

Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)

Toxic Shock Syndrome is an illness caused by toxins produced by a rare bacteria - staphylococcus aureus - which occurs mostly in women using high-absorbency tampons.

Bacteria are able to entire the vaginal wall through the lacerations caused by tampons. High-absorbency tampons are particularly dangerous because some might expand too much and adhere to the vaginal wall, so a layer of vaginal lining can be scraped off when the tampon is removed. TSS usually occurs during or immediately after the period.

Symptoms include:

  • fever (over 102°F)
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • rash
  • drop in blood pressure
  • muscle and headaches
  • sore throat
  • blood shot eyes
  • confusion
  • peeling of the skin on the palms and soles.

TSS can be potentially fatal - associated illnesses include kidney or liver failure. If you have any of the above symptoms during or after your period, seek medical help immediately to receive the correct treatment.

Although it's important to be aware of TSS, try not to worry about it too much. TSS is a very rare condition and if you use tampons of the correct absorbency and remove them frequently, it's highly unlikely you'll contract it.

Missing a period

Irregular periods are common for up to three years after you first start - it takes most women's bodies a good few years to get into a proper cycle. So don't worry too much if you don't have a regular cycle for a while.

There are also tonnes of reasons for irregular or missed periods. Here are the main reasons:

  • stress
  • diet change
  • extreme weight loss
  • being overweight or obese
  • starting/ending a new form of hormonal contraception
  • hormone-related medication
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • pregnancy.

If you've had unprotected sex recently, you don’t necessarily have to be pregnant, but you could have contracted an STI. Head to your local GUM clinic for a sexual health check-up, and take a home pregnancy test too if you'd like peace of mind.

If you haven't had sex and your periods have become strangely irregular, a trip to your GP could be due just to check everything's okay.

Do you have any further questions about periods? Have we missed anything out of our guide? Join in the conversation below.

Related on TSR:

A beginner's guide to sex

What to expect at the GUM clinic

Contraception - anything and almost everything