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Menstruation (periods)

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Menstruation (also called a period) is bleeding from the vagina that happens once a month as part of the menstrual cycle.
  • Each month the lining of your uterus becomes thicker to prepare the body for a potential pregnancy — if you don’t become pregnant, the lining breaks down and flows out as a period.
  • Periods usually last 3 to 7 days and may sometimes be accompanied by abdominal pain and mood changes — but each female's experience is different.
  • Menstruation may stop because of changes in weight, stress, intensive exercise, hormone problems or medicines.
  • See your doctor if your periods are irregular, heavy or painful.

What is menstruation?

Menstruation is bleeding from the vagina that happens about once a month. It is a normal part of the menstrual cycle. It is also known as having a period.

Periods usually come between 21 and 35 days apart. This can change from cycle to cycle. You can work out your menstrual cycle length by counting how many days there are from the first day of your period until the first day of your next period.

The menstrual cycle gets your body ready for a pregnancy and is controlled by hormones that come from your brain and ovaries.

What happens during the menstrual cycle?

In each menstrual cycle, an egg develops in one of your ovaries. When the egg is ready, it is released from the ovary — this is known as ovulation. At this stage it can be fertilised by sperm and develop into a pregnancy. While this is happening, the lining of your uterus becomes thicker, getting ready in case of pregnancy.

If you don’t become pregnant, the lining of the uterus falls away.  It flows out through your vagina as a menstrual bleed (or period) and the cycle starts again.

What can I expect during a period?

Menstruation is different for each person. Most females bleed for 3 to 7 days. Bleeding can be light or heavy and the blood can range from bright red to dark brown. The flow usually starts off heavier and then becomes lighter. You might also see small clots.

You might get period pain — cramps or aches in the lower part of your abdomen (tummy) or back.

Some females get other symptoms leading up to and during menstruation, such as:

  • bloating in the abdomen or weight gain
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • headaches
  • breast swelling and pain
  • acne
  • tiredness
  • mood changes and feeling irritable

When do periods start?

Females have their first period during puberty. The average age to get your first period is 12 or 13, but it can happen as young as 9, or as late as 16.

Can periods cause any problems?

Problems with periods can include:

When do periods stop?

Periods stop temporarily during pregnancy. They can also stop during breastfeeding.

Some females find their periods stop for a time because of changes in body weight, stress, travel, lots of strenuous exercise or hormone problems.

Some medicines, such as contraceptives, might stop periods. This can be helpful for some people, especially if their periods are heavy or painful. Sometimes after stopping ‘the pill’ or another contraceptive, it can take a while for periods to come back.

Periods stop altogether when you reach menopause — the average age for this in Australia is 51.

What products can I use when I have a period?

There are several options available to help you manage your bleeding. It’s your choice what to use.

Sanitary pads are attached to your underwear to absorb blood. You will need to change your pad every 4 hours or so, or when it’s full.

Tampons are placed inside your vagina to absorb blood. You will need to change your tampon every 3 to 4 hours, or when it’s full. Never leave a tampon in for more than 8 hours — rarely, this could cause a dangerous condition called toxic shock syndrome. For this reason, it might be best not to use tampons overnight. Wash your hands carefully before inserting and removing a tampon.

A menstrual cup is placed inside your vagina to catch blood. You will need to empty it when it’s full. Follow the product instructions for when it needs to be removed to prevent toxic shock syndrome.

Period underwear has a layer that absorbs blood. It can be used on its own, or in combination with other sanitary protection.

If you are using tampons or disposable pads, wrap them up and put them in the bin. Never flush them down the toilet. If you are using reusable pads, rinse them off and put them in the washing machine. Menstrual cups and period underwear can be washed and reused. Wash your hands carefully before changing your sanitary products and make sure your products are clean.

Keep a ‘period kit’ in your handbag or school bag, as you might get your period unexpectedly. Keeping pain medicines, sanitary products and a spare pair of underwear in your bag, at school or at work can be helpful.

How can I care for myself during my period?

You should be able to do all your regular activities when you have your period.

You can go swimming with a tampon or menstrual cup and some types of period underwear.

If you have sex, make sure to take your tampon out beforehand.

Some females feel they need to rest when they have their period. If you are in pain, you can use a hot water bottle or take pain-relieving medicines.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any bleeding after menopause.

It’s important to see your doctor if you are 16 years or older and haven't started to have periods.

You should also talk to your doctor if:

  • your periods are getting heavier
  • your periods last for more than 8 days
  • your periods are less than 3 weeks apart or more than 2 months apart
  • the pattern of your periods change
  • your periods have stopped for more than 6 months and you’re not sure why
  • you are bleeding in between periods or after sex
  • you have severe period pain that affects your daily activities

You can also talk to your doctor if your periods are affecting your wellbeing or enjoyment of life.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Resources and support

Learn more about the menstrual cycle on the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health website.

If you have any concerns about your periods, you can go to your doctor or local sexual health clinic or look for information on the sexual health website for your state or territory.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a nurse for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2022

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