What is a menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is a normal part of every woman’s life. It is a repeating cycle of body changes controlled by hormones causing a regular bleed (period or menses). This bleed, usually monthly, comes from the uterus or womb and flows out the vagina. The period, menstruation or menses, are all words used to describe the blood loss women experience.
The menstrual cycle begins at menarche (the first period) and ends with menopause (the last period).
Every woman’s cycle is unique and individual in its experience.
The average age of menarche in Western countries is 12-13 years, but can start as early as nine and as late as 17. The average age of menopause is 51 with a range of 45-60 years.
Why do I have a menstrual cycle?
The role of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the body for pregnancy. When a pregnancy does not occur a period results. Women in our society on average have 450-500 periods in their lifetime.
How does the menstrual cycle occur?
The menstrual cycle is a complex relationship between hormones from the brain and ovaries. This leads to the development and release of an egg from the ovary (ovulation) and growth of the internal lining of the uterus (endometrium) to prepare it for pregnancy. When the hormones signal the uterus that there is no pregnancy, the lining starts to breakdown and separate from the wall of the uterus and the period begins. Once the lining has separated the cycle starts again.
In the first two or three years after a girl’s period has started, the cycles can be irregular as ovulation does not always occur each cycle. Over the first few years, the body develops a routine of releasing an egg and shedding the lining of the uterus.
The same process, ‘a winding down’, happens at the end of the reproductive cycle prior to menopause.
How long is a normal menstrual cycle?
The cycle length averages 26-29 days, with a normal range from every three to eight weeks. The cycle is measured from the first day of the period to the first day of the next period.
For a 28 day cycle:
Day 1 period ________________ Day 14 Ovulation ________________ Day 28 period
starts (approximate time of starts
release of an egg)
How much bleeding should I expect?
The bleeding can vary in quality and quantity, from a slight amount to a heavy loss, and can vary in colour from brown to bright red. The period may last from one to seven days, and most women lose less than 80ml of blood (about four tablespoons in total). The flow changes throughout the period and can be heavier for the first three days and then lessen in the next few days. Some small clots may be normal, but if the clots become frequent or heavier then seek medical advice. The period contains blood, mucous and some endometrial cells. In some women ovulation may lead to some slight spotting and/or pain. This is due to a normal change in some of the hormones following ovulation.
What sanitary products can I use during my period?
Also known as sanitary pads or napkins. These are made of absorbent material and come in a range of thicknesses and shapes. They need to be changed three to four hourly and placed in special bins, usually beside the toilet, or wrapped and placed in a rubbish bin.
Tampons are absorbent ‘plugs’ made of cotton, or a combination with a synthetic material. These are of various sizes and placed into the vagina. They can be used by all ages and should be changed every three to four hours. Similar to pads, tampons should only be put in the rubbish or a special bin in toilets. Very rarely, Toxic Shock Syndrome can occur when using tampons. This is due to a rapid growth of normal bacteria releasing a toxin which leads to symptoms of ‘shock’ such as feeling unwell, fever, rash, diarrhoea and headache. Always wash your hands before inserting a tampon.
The ‘Keeper’ has been available for many years and is long-lasting (10 years) but is used by a very small number of women. It is a soft rubber cup which sits in the vagina over the cervix and collects the menstrual flow. It can be washed after each period using only water or soapy water.
The ‘Duracup’ is a latex-free, medical grade silicone cup which is similar to the ‘Keeper’. These cups are considered environmentally friendly and are usually purchased online.
Will I have any signs or symptoms before my period?
Premenstrual symptoms may occur in the one to two weeks before your period. These include irritability, bloating, sore breasts, pimples and tiredness. Normally these symptoms are annoying but would not interfere with your day to day activities. They usually settle when the period starts or in the first two to three days of the period. In a small number of women the symptoms can be so severe that their lifestyle is impaired so that they cannot function properly. If this occurs then you should seek assistance from your health professional.
Can I have sex during my period?
There is no medical reason why women can’t have sex during their period. Some women prefer not to because of personal, cultural or religious preferences. It is important to still practise safer sex because sexually transmissible infections including Chlamydia, HIV or Hepatitis B may be transmitted, and pregnancies can occur.
Your menstrual cycle is a normal process for your body. Every woman experiences her menstrual cycle differently, mostly without any difficulties. If there is any change in the cycle which worries you then seek advice from your health professional.
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