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Normal and Abnormal Periods

What’s a Normal Period?

Menstrual periods are not the same for every woman. And a woman’s period can change throughout her lifetime. The timing, duration, and flow of periods can vary greatly, and it can be difficult to determine what’s normal and abnormal.

Here are some facts about periods:

  • A young girl’s first menstrual period, called menarche, is a milestone in puberty and usually occurs between the ages of 11 and 14 years
  • Girls who are just beginning to menstruate often have irregular periods and periods that fluctuate with light, moderate, or heavy flows
  • A young girl’s period tends to occur 21 to 45 days apart and last 4 to 7 days
  • As girls get older, on average, menstrual periods occur every 28 days, range from 21 to 35 days, and last 3 to 5 days
  • Typically, women lose about 30 mL to 45 mL (about 2 to 3 tablespoons) of blood during a period.
  • Typically, as women age, their periods occur less and less frequently until they stop altogether, called menopause

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What’s an Abnormal Period?

Keeping in mind the usual or occasional fluctuations in periods, here are some signs that a period may not be normal:

  • Bleeding for more than 7 days is not normal
  • A menstrual cycle lasting 90 days or longer in a woman not receiving a hormonal treatment is not normal
  • Menorrhagia is defined as blood loss greater than 80 mL per menstrual period, approximately 5.5 tablespoons or about one-third of a cup. This is not normal

In general, menorrhagia is characterized by heavy and prolonged periods—more than just one or two days of heavier-than-average bleeding. However, with the availability of super-absorbent pads and tampons, measuring blood loss can be imprecise. In practical terms, the menstrual bleeding of menorrhagia is so heavy that it requires more than one pad or tampon every one to two hours, frequently stains through underclothes and bed clothes, and may include passing blood clots one-inch thick in diameter.

For more information about heavy menstrual periods, go to Changing Roles in Treatment.

Tips and Tricks for Managing Your Heavy Period

Coping with heavy periods is no light matter for many women with a bleeding disorder.

Click on the tabs below for tips from young women on how they deal with the inconvenience and frustrations of heavy periods.

Daytime Strategies

  • When I'm out and about and active, I keep an emergency bag of:
    • At least 2 extra pairs of panties
    • An extra pair of jeans in my car at all times (younger girls may wish to keep this in a locker)
    • A long-sleeved sweater or jacket (in case of any accidents, this comes in handy to tie around your waist!)
    • Pads, tampons, and panty liners
  • I also carry a cute little cosmetics bag in my purse during the day. It’s chock full of pads, panty liners, and tampons at all times during the week. It’s discreet. So when you take it to the bathroom, it just looks like a little make up bag
  • I actually restock it every night before work the next day to make sure I am covered. Just be stocked at all times, wherever you’re going, so you can avoid a potentially embarrassing situation!
  • Things to avoid when your periods are heavy:
    • Thongs and going commando
    • Your favorite pairs of underwear, skirts, or lightly colored shorts or pants
    • Swimming
  • Most other daily activities I find are just fine. If you don’t feel up to doing something, just don’t
  • One of the problems I encountered with pads are limited mobility. I was in dance classes and if I moved around too much the pad would move out of place. I felt I had to constantly check to see if I needed to change; otherwise a sponge-like effect would happen when I sat
  • On my heaviest days, I would set alarm clocks during the night to make sure I would get up to change. Once I moved on to tampons I felt safer. I did run into some trouble at the beginning. So, I would suggest using light pads as well as tampons until you know more or less when you need to change
  • I’ve noticed that toward the beginning of my period, when I have more clots, I may sometimes need to change my tampon sooner. Clots cling to the outside, and I think it doesn't allow the tampon to absorb as well
  • To this day I always use panty liners, just in case. I still have to get up at night to change; a tampon is not sufficient for overnight. I have even tried the tampons that hold more than the super size, but those just left me with soreness
  • I wear dark-colored pants during my period

The best way to deal with this huge change in your life is to be informed and educated.

Nighttime Suggestions

  • For sleeping, I actually put a doubled-up dark colored towel underneath my bottom – just in case I have some leakage. (It’s best to avoid these leaks because blood can be hard to get out of clothes and sheets)
  • I use tampons with panty liners during the day and use menstrual cups at night. They are not comfortable, but I feel fine sleeping through the whole night without having to worry about leakage
  • So that I don’t continuously ruin new ones, I have underwear dedicated to wearing at night during my period
  • To prevent ruining sheets, I used to sleep with an old blanket underneath me to absorb the blood if I bled though my overnight pads

Coping With Cramps

  • Disposable heating pads work really well against cramps. They stick under your clothes
  • Exercise. I know, easier said than done; but, exercise can have several benefits. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that help counteract the cramp-producing chemicals that are part of the menstrual cycle. Also, engaging in your normal activities can get your mind off the pain

Some Laundry Advice

A laundering hint: very cold water helps to take out blood stains, and so does hydrogen peroxide. Try to rub out the stain using one or both before washing. Keep in mind that the dryer will set the stain in permanently.

Fels-Naptha® is a heavy duty laundry bar soap that removes blood. So does dish soap.

Talk to Others

My advice to you is this: I know that this is scary and that it’s weird and uncomfortable, but talk to someone—your mom, grandma, aunt, older sister, someone. You probably know someone who has gone through this as well. Talking to others will help you to better understand your body.

To print out a copy of these and other suggestions, go to Tips and Tricks for Managing Your Heavy Period