For many of us, the education we got about our periods was minimal. Often, we got bare-bones breakdowns in health class that were limited to warnings about bleeding and menstrual cramps. Or we were simply just handed pads or tampons when our first flow arrived, without much discussion at all.
Luckily, as the conversation about menstruation begins to come more into the open, the information and resources are getting more comprehensive, too.
The beginning of puberty is a time of so many important changes within the body, and it’s so important to be equipped with evidence-based information about what to expect and how to deal with these shifts.
Even though many of us have already been menstruating for many years, it’s always a good idea to go back to basics and remind ourselves what’s going on in our bodies, what to look out for, and how best to manage our symptoms.
Let’s start with the basics: what is a period, anyways?
What is a period?
Your period (also called menstruation) is a monthly shedding of the lining of your uterus, which goes through your cervix and out of your vagina . But your menstrual cycle is a process that’s going on behind the scenes for the entire month, not just when you’re bleeding.
Your menstrual cycle is an intricate dance of different hormones that prepare your body for a potential pregnancy each month. The pituitary gland in the brain and your ovaries secrete a cocktail of hormones that affect your body in different ways .
The rise of hormones like oestrogen in the first half of your cycle, for example, leads to ovulation, where your ovaries will release an egg which—if it meets sperm—is how pregnancy happens . But if no pregnancy occurs, the lining of your uterus will shed at the end of the month as your period.
What changes will I notice in my body?
So, now that we know what a period is, what changes might you notice in the lead-up to your first bleed?
The first thing to know is that puberty is a process that occurs in stages. Most people start menstruating around age 12 (but it can be a few years earlier or later in some people) . But before you start your period, you’ll likely notice some changes. Some of these include:
- Breast changes
- Vaginal discharge
- Armpit hair
- Pubic hair
These changes can begin at different ages, but they indicate that your period will likely start between 2 and 3 years after noticing these changes . Let’s look at some of these in turn.
Some of the first changes you might notice in your body are changes to your nipples and breasts . Your breasts will begin to grow, and you might notice changes in how your nipples look (for example, they will likely become puffy and protrude from your chest, even if your breasts haven’t begun growing yet) .
You will also begin noticing pubic hair growing—usually, this will appear more sparse and light in the early stages of puberty, but it will become darker and coarser with time. You’ll also likely notice armpit hair beginning to grow .
Discharge and cervical fluid: what’s normal?
During puberty, another change you will notice is fluid secreting from your vagina (you might start to see this on your underwear). Most of this discharge is totally normal, but some types might indicate infection and thus require medical attention, so it’s important to know the difference.
Cervical fluid (sometimes called cervical mucous) is a totally normal type of vaginal discharge which happens every month, coinciding with the different phases of your menstrual cycle . It’s part of the body’s way of maintaining balance in the vaginal microbiome and warding off infection (as well as playing a role in pregnancy) .
We’re often under the impression that any secretion from the vagina is gross or unhygienic, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Cervical fluid is a totally normal bodily process that happens every month and actually has an important role to play in fertility.
Many people are tempted to use douches when they notice cervical fluid of any kind because they believe it’s unclean or indicates an infection, but this isn’t necessary and can harm vaginal pH. The vagina (the part inside your body) is self-cleaning, so washing the vulva (the outside part) with water—or, at most, a mild unscented soap—is all you need !
When is discharge a cause for concern?
Certain kinds of vaginal discharge can indicate an infection or condition that requires a doctor’s visit to diagnose and treat. If you notice any of the following symptoms, it’s a good idea to check it out with a doctor :
- A change in colour, consistency, or odour of discharge
- A change in the amount of discharge
- Itching, redness, or pain on your vulva
For example, yeast infections are most commonly associated with symptoms like itching and burning on the vulva. Bacterial Vaginosis, on the other hand, produces a discharge that has a strong odour often described as “fishy” . Remember, though, that your vagina is not completely odourless, so some odour is normal. If you feel like you have to cover it up so that others will not notice it, though, that might indicate a problem . The good news is that most vaginal infections, like yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis (BV), are easily treated and usually clear up with over-the-counter treatment (once your doctor has figured out what’s happening).
What’s a normal cycle length?
When you first begin menstruating, don’t expect your period to be on a perfectly regular schedule. It’s typical for your period to be irregular for the first couple of years of menstruation, meaning that you may not get a period every month at regular intervals .
As time goes on, however, your cycle should regulate to where you’re having a period more or less once per month.
Also, although many resources present a “normal” cycle as being 28 days long, don’t get hung up on having a 28-day cycle each month—research shows that only 16% of people have a median 28-day cycle . For adolescents, it falls within a range of about 21-35 days (and longer cycles are common amongst people who are just beginning to menstruate) .
When you start menstruating (or between the ages of 13-15), it’s a good idea to make an appointment with the gynaecologist to establish a relationship and have a check-up to ensure everything is developing normally . That way, if you run into problems later on, you have someone who knows your history and is best equipped to help.
Is it normal for my period to be painful?
It is normal to have some mild discomfort before and during your period, but the key word here is mild. If the symptoms and pain you’re experiencing are interfering with your everyday activities, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider for solutions to see what might be going on.
Oftentimes, pain associated with menstruation is normalised, which is really harmful and can contribute to menstrual disorders like endometriosis taking a long time to diagnose, especially for young people .
Other symptoms that aren’t normal to look out for include :
- Your period becoming irregular after having been regular previously
- Bleeding between periods
- Severe pain
- Bleeding for more than seven days straight
- Developing a fever or feeling sick after using tampons
Remember that severe pain and symptoms might be common, but they aren’t normal—more likely, they indicate a problem that needs addressing.
Dealing with period symptoms
Now that you know what to expect, how can you be prepared to manage your symptoms should any discomfort arise?
For menstrual cramps, the first line of defence is generally over-the-counter pain medication (such as Ibuprofen) . Some people also find that heat applied through a hot water bottle or through taking a bath also helps to ease their cramps .
Exercise has also been shown to reduce the severity of menstrual cramps, as well, so finding a type of movement you enjoy can lead to an easier period .
For more severe period symptoms, some providers might recommend an oral contraceptive or a hormonal IUD. This prevents ovulation and maybe it’s a more suitable long-term option if menstrual cycle symptoms are persistent .
What are my options for period care?
Even though the classic options for period care are pads and tampons, there are more and more options emerging, so you’ll be able to experiment with different options and find what works best for you.
Some options for period care include:
- Sanitary pads
- Period underwear
- Reusable pads
- Menstrual cups
Many start out with sanitary pads because they’re easy to use and convenient, while some prefer tampons because they can make activities like sports and swimming more comfortable. Some find inserting tampons difficult or painful at first, however, so don’t put pressure on yourself to use them before you feel ready.
There are also many more options, like period underwear, which is made with absorbent materials in the fabric that acts as a kind of reusable pad, or period cups, which are reusable silicone cups that can be inserted similarly to a tampon.
Even though it might feel like there are way too many options at first, there’s no pressure to use any period care product you’re uncomfortable with. What you prefer will likely change over time as you try different ways of managing your flow and find what works best for you.
And, even with all the period care options in the world, leaks will still happen. Getting blood on clothes and sheets is inevitable and not something to be embarrassed about. Cold water (never hot!) and laundry soap—especially when applied quickly, before the blood sets—will take care of any stains.
Who can I turn to for support?
All of these changes can be overwhelming, so having people around to support you is important. If you have a primary caregiver or older sibling who menstruates, consider asking them about their experience. If you feel shy about taking the first step, you could write them a letter or send them a text asking them to talk about it with you later.
Your friends can also be great resources, especially if some have already begun menstruating. Ask them about their experiences and share what you’ve been going through, too.
Even though periods can bring some discomfort, you can talk about which positive aspects might be emerging for you.
Are you getting to know your body in a new way?
Maybe you’re noticing how your energy changes throughout the month and are designing your activities to align with this. Embracing these changes together can be a great source of bonding and mutual support—reach out whenever you need it!
How can I understand my cycle better?
The beginning of menstruation is not only about your period. There are so many changes going on in your body, and it can be empowering for some to develop an intimate knowledge of your body’s cycles, changes, and rhythms during this time.
In fact, one’s menstrual cycle is so important to overall health that some doctors are calling for it to be treated as a fifth vital sign, like your heart rate or blood pressure, because it’s such an important indicator of overall health .
Tracking your cycle is one way to develop this self-knowledge. This will not only help you keep track of menstrual cycle length and symptoms you’re experiencing, but it can also help you understand whether or not you’re ovulating regularly.
It’s normal to have some cycles with no ovulation during the first couple of years after starting menstruation (this is called anovulation) , but ovulating regularly after this period is an important indicator of overall health—it’s not just relevant when you want to get pregnant . For example, preliminary research found that ovulation has an important role to play in bone density formation .
The inne minilab is one easy way to determine whether you’re ovulating each month. Using painless at-home saliva testing, the minilab sends daily progesterone readings to your smartphone. Progesterone is a key hormone in the menstrual cycle that rises after ovulation , so tracking these changes gives you important insights into your ovulation status and overall health.
Recap: You and Your Period
Your period is a normal bodily function—it isn’t gross, unhygienic, or something embarrassing to be spoken about in code. After all, half of the world menstruates!
Remember that everyone is different—your friend’s period will likely be different than yours and come at a different time. Try not to compare yourself to others.
Finally, know that this time in your life can mean whatever it means to you—it might be something you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about, or you might relate to it as a time of discovery where you can get to know yourself in a new way.
However you feel about these changes is totally valid, no matter how your parents or friends are telling you that you should feel. Pay attention to what you’re experiencing, and don’t be afraid to go to a trusted adult or friend for support when you need it.
Even if you started your period many years ago, it’s never too late to re-examine your relationship with menstruation and use its signs and signals to better understand your body and your health.
And if you need a hand getting started, the inne minilab always has your back.
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