While periods seem pretty straightforward they can actually get super complicated. There’s the timing, the symptoms, and the cramps to factor into it, not to mention the sudden flood of hormones. But once you know what’s behind the domino effect that leads to your period, it can be easier to predict — and therefore manage. Here, we answer the most common questions about your period.
“Period” is a nickname for menstruation, which is the phase of your menstrual cycle during which you bleed. (Menstrual comes from the Latin menses, which means month. The more you know!) Menstruation means the body is capable of becoming pregnant, and during each month long menstrual cycle, your body basically sets itself up for pregnancy.
Your hormones are the boss of your menstrual cycle, and they dictate all the different processes that happen in your body. The first day of your period kicks off every new cycle. That can last up to a week. Then, a few different hormones (estradiol, luteinizing hormone, and follicle-stimulating hormone) rise over the course of week two. These work to wake up the ovaries. That’s the first half of your cycle in a nutshell.
About halfway through the cycle — so, about the 14th day of the average 28 day-long cycle — these hormones drop, which causes the ovary to send an egg down to the uterus. That’s when a hormone called progesterone steps up; it thickens the lining of your uterus, prepping it to nourish a fertilized egg should you get pregnant. If the egg isn’t fertilized by a sperm within a week or so (meaning no pregnancy occurs) it breaks down. Progesterone also falls, leading the uterus to shed its thickened lining. That causes your period; the blood contains the remnants of that old, unused uterine lining. Then, the process starts from square one.
It’s hard to pin down an average age because everyone is different. In most cases, your period comes between the ages of nine and 13 (although it could arrive as late as 16). You can prep for this change by reading up on what to expect when you get your first period. (Psst: Parents, we’ve got you covered, too, with our guide to talking to your kids about puberty.)
Your body’s going to start prepping for your period way before it actually comes (get ready to say hello to female puberty!). For one, your breasts will start to swell and get bigger, and you might notice hair growing under your arms and between your legs (what’s up, pubic hair). You may also notice discharge before you get your first period; it may be a clear or white fluid in your underwear. That’s usually a sign that you may get your period within the next year or so.
And if your period isn’t a real blood-red shade of red, that’s totally normal. The first time you get your period, it could be pink or brown in color. It takes your body a few months to figure out this new development, so most things about your period — its timing, its color, that sort of thing — aren’t set in stone.
Your period usually lasts between two and seven days, though it could even be a little longer. It’s usually heaviest on the first three days, and then lightens up from there. (Intrigued? Check our full guide to allll the different phases of your menstrual cycle. The more you know.)
For most people, their period is not going to show up 28 days later on the dot. In fact, for the first few months, your period will be really flaky — that is, unpredictable and irregular. Although the average cycle length is indeed 28 days (hence its “monthly” timing), your cycle could actually last anywhere from 21 to 35 days. That’s a huge window, and again, it won’t stick to the same timeline every month. So, don’t sweat if it seems shorter or longer than usual. Try using a period tracker like the Tampax Period Tracker, which can help you figure out a pattern in your cycle and help you better plan for your period.
Period cramps are like cramps everywhere else: A muscle contracts too hard or too fast, constricting the blood flow and causing some pain. (Woof.) And when your uterus is contracting, it can be extra-gnarly — which is why it’s not uncommon for cramps to put you out of commission for a while.
While this info won’t exactly make your cramps go away, heating pads can definitely help, as can a warm bath and an over-the-counter pain reliever. And even though you may not feel like it, exercise can work wonders. If you’re dealing with other gnarly period side effects — what’s up, bloating — this guide is full of tips for how to feel better with your period.
Your period could be late for a whole host of reasons. Maybe your diet changed, you’re stressed to the nines, or you’ve been under the weather. If you miss it altogether, there’s always the possibility of pregnancy — but a missed period doesn’t automatically mean you’re pregnant. Things like stress, nutrition, or an infection can also make your period late or MIA entirely.
But if you’ve been getting your period for a while and it’s still irregular every month — and you’re definitely not pregnant — then you should get it checked out by a doctor to rule out an underlying disorder or another medical concern.
Certain forms of hormonal birth control enable you to skip your period entirely. Beyond that, there’s no safe, proven way to stop your period (outside of pregnancy or menopause, at least).
If you want your period to come earlier — so, say, you can go on vacation without packing a bunch of tampons — you’re out of luck. Unless it’s for a legitimate medical reason, in which case a doctor can help, there’s no way to DIY a faster period. While you can certainly find a million and one “natural remedies” that can supposedly speed things up, there’s no scientific evidence to back them up. You’re better off letting nature run its course.