Irregular periods happen when your body doesn’t follow the natural rhythm of the menstrual cycle. This can look like long gaps between your periods, or bleeding that happens more often than it should.
As many as 25% of women (of reproductive age) experience menstrual irregularities. It is very common and in general, shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Keep reading to learn what a typical period looks like and how to determine if your cycle is irregular. We’ve also included information on spotting, the causes of irregular bleeding, and ways you can regulate your menstruation.
A woman’s period comes in the first week of her menstrual cycle and typically lasts for 2-7 days. During this period the lining of the uterus is shed - which results in vaginal bleeding.
Normal periods can look like any of the following:
Periods usually occur every 28 days, with the first day of your period marking day 1 of a new cycle.
However, it is normal for periods to be more or less frequent than this. A regular period can range from every 21 days to every 35 days.
A period is irregular when you experience either very long or short gaps between bleeds. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but is most common when girls start menstruating (during puberty) and when women finish menstruating (during menopause).
Your period may be irregular if:
Irregular bleeding may also be accompanied by spotting or small amounts of bloody discharge that occur when you’re in between periods.
The term ‘spotting’ refers to light vaginal bleeding that occurs in between menstrual cycles. It can also be recognised as bloody discharge.
Spotting is very light bleeding - it doesn’t require menstrual products like tampons or sanitary pads. If you experience vaginal bleeding that soaks a panty liner, this wouldn’t be considered as spotting.
Other causes include:
If you are experiencing any pain during sex that causes spotting, this might be a sign that something isn’t quite right. Consult a healthcare professional if you are consistently spotting after having intercourse.
Please note: If you frequently experience spotting and haven’t recently started hormonal contraception, consult your doctor.
There are many possible reasons for having irregular periods. Some of the most common causes include:
When you start taking hormonal contraception like the pill, or if you have an IUD (intra-uterine device) fitted, the hormone levels in your body change.
Whilst your body adapts to these changes, it is common to experience irregular periods and ‘breakthrough bleeding’ or spotting. Spotting is even more likely if you miss a pill, or don’t take your birth control pills regularly.
Some women lose their period due to excessive weight loss. This is because your body isn’t able to produce the right hormones if it isn’t getting enough energy from food.
Vigorous exercise and stress can also cause your menstrual cycle to become irregular.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is usually due to an imbalance of hormones. This means that women with PCOS can have very light or very heavy periods, with symptoms varying each month. This imbalance of hormones also causes irregular periods to occur.
If your thyroid function is overactive your periods can become very varied. They could become very light, very heavy, or irregular.
Problems that occur in the womb can be responsible for irregular periods too. This includes uterine fibroids (a growth of harmless tumours) or polyps on the lining of the uterus.
If you are over 40, perimenopause is likely causing your periods to become less regular. Perimenopause is a woman's natural transition into menopause.
It can take a long time for your regular periods to return after childbirth if you are breastfeeding.
This is because the hormone that helps you to produce milk (called prolactin) temporarily stops you from ovulating.
However, it’s still possible to get pregnant even if you aren’t having periods. Use barrier methods of contraception to avoid an unplanned pregnancy.
Some women go through phases of having irregular periods which don’t require treatment. In many cases, your body's natural cycle returns by itself.
However, other women may benefit from the following if it applies to them:
Irregular periods don’t always require help from a medical professional. However, you should visit a doctor if:
To sum up, most women experience irregular bleeding at some point within their lives. A lot of the time it’s unexplained - but eventually your body gets back on track.
Other reasons for irregular periods include:
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