Menstruation is a part of most women's lives for years (and years): Menopause typically begins around age 50, and girls in the U.S. tend to get their periods somewhere between 12 and 13 -- although puberty is beginning at younger and younger ages. Which means, women generally deal with their periods for roughly four decades (and use around 11,800 tampons, according to some estimates floating around on the Internet).
But how much do we really know about menstruation? Between botched sex-ed classes; rushed doctor's visits; pop culture portrayals that make our periods seem epically icky; and Dr. Google being a notoriously unreliable source, many of us have significant gaps in our menstruation know-how. And it matters.
"I think it's good for women to know about how their bodies function," explained Lois McGuire, a women's health nurse practitioner and instructor in obstetrics and gynecology with the Mayo Clinic. "It helps us know what's typical, personally, and what's not, so we can flag their health care team if something's off."
Here, in no particular order, are just eight of the things we should all know about our periods, but that nobody bothered to tell us. Huzzah, to period wisdom!
"A lot of adolescents get these 'blow out' periods, and they have no idea that they're too heavy -- or that there are things they can do to help control them," said McGuire. "They just assume that everyone's [period] is this way."
While having a heavy flow is
relatively common (and most women tend to bleed more in the first few days), if you find yourself needing to change your pad or tampon more than every two to three hours, or if your period lasts longer than seven days, it's likely time to talk to a health care provider about your options. Hormonal birth control can help decrease the amount of flow a woman experiences, as can certain pain relievers. There's also a small chance that heavy flow is a sign of menorrhagia
, a term used to define periods that are so intense, they keep a woman from doing her usual activities. The bottom line -- if you think your flow is abnormally heavy, ask!
For women who have painful periods (and evidence suggests there's a lot of us out there),
getting relief from cramping and other common physical symptoms often requires taking over-the-counter pain relievers before
any bleeding even starts. "If you take [medication] when the symptoms are already bad, you're behind the ball," said McGuire. "If your periods are pretty regular, and if you know you start on a Wednesday or Thursday, for example, I might start dosing on a Tuesday." Research also suggests that certain lifestyle changes
-- like getting plenty of exercise and sleep, eating healthy foods and finding ways to relax -- can help provide some women with some relief.
"In most instances, your period should not keep you from your normal activities," said Dr. Mary Rosser, an assistant professor and attending physician in obstetrics and gynecology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "Studies have shown that 90 percent of women will experience some symptoms, [but] mostly mild. And 10 to 20 percent will have symptoms that interfere with normal activities." Those symptoms can crop up when you're actively bleeding, or as a part of PMS, which occurs because of hormonal changes in the week or two prior to your period. See your doctor if you have you have cramps that keep you from doing your normal, daily activities, or PMS symptoms that interfere with your day-to-day.
It's highly unlikely, but it is
possible for you to become pregnant during your period. As Health.com explains
, some women have long periods that overlap with the beginning of ovulation -- even though they're still menstruating. Or, as Dr. Michele Hakakha, an OBGYN and author of Expecting 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Pregnancy
, told Parents.com
: "A woman with a shorter menstrual cycle (24 days, for example), could have seven days of bleeding, have intercourse on her final day of bleeding and ovulate three days later. Since sperm live for three to five days, she could definitely get pregnant."
When it comes to the complete menstrual cycle, every woman has a slightly different pattern. However, most women bleed, then are dry for a few days, then experience a light, mucus-like discharge (pre-ovulation) that becomes increasingly cloudy and thick (a sign that ovulation has likely ended). "What's different from one woman to another is the quantity of discharge," McGuire said. "It's just like how some people have oily skin, and others have dry skin." Clueing into your own pattern is just good practice, namely so you have a sense of what is happening in your body and can watch out for any changes.
First thing's first: there is no one typical cycle -- cycles can range from 21 to 35 days, said Rosser. Teen girls' cycles can last anywhere from 21 to 45 days
. And "most women do not get their period on the exact same day of the month," Rosser added. "That is normal!" Think about it -- most months have 30 or 31 days in them, so even if your cycle is 100-percent precise, your period won't start on exactly the same day or date every month.
In addition, it is not necessarily uncommon to have one or two abnormal periods per year, Rosser said, adding that irregular or missed periods can come from a variety of causes, including illness, stress, significant weight loss or gain, or pregnancy. If you're feeling totally fine otherwise, but your period is irregular, it's typically OK to just wait until your next period, she said. But if that irregularity becomes persistent, or if you have any concerns, you should see your health care provider.
Sure, movies and TV shows tend to portray women's periods as somehow "gross,"
but menstruation is a perfectly normal biological process and women shouldn't go overboard in the hygiene department, McGuire says. "Most patients are too aggressive with cleaning," she said. "It's good to use a soap that has a pH that's similar to your own body's ... no douches, no powders, no talcs, no perfume sprays, none of the wipes that are so popular now, because they can cause irritation." In fact, McGuire said she frequently encounters women who think they're having problems with vaginitis or other bacterial infections, but really, they're just being overzealous in cleaning themselves with harsh soaps.
"In many cases, our moms never talked to us about when they went through menopause," said Dr. Shannon Laughlin-Tommaso, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology with the Mayo Clinic -- but it has implications for when you might stop getting your period. In fact, the age at which your mother went through menopause is one of the biggest predictors for when you will, Laughlin-Tommaso said. And that's extremely useful information to have, because there's significant range -- the average age at which a woman has her last period is 51
, but anything between age 40 and 56 is within the normal range, she said.