Ah, periods. They can be an absolute minefield with the bleeding and the cramping but let's be honest - they're a pretty amazing natural process that deserves to be understood, not apologised for - or hushed up.
So, we've called upon gynaecologist Dr Katharine White to answer everything you ever wanted to know about periods from what to do if your tampon gets stuck, to which period product is right for you...
Why is my period suddenly heavier?
Suddenly need to double your usual pads or tampons? If one period is crazily heavy, wait it out, but if a few in a row are, you may have developed a polyp or fibroids in your uterus. This sounds scary, but these benign growths are more of a nuisance than a danger. Or you may be experiencing a hormonal imbalance in your thyroid or pituitary gland – also completely treatable. Your doctor can order blood tests or an ultrasound scan to figure out the cause.
How do I deal with cramps?
Cramps can be an inconvenience at best and a total nightmare at worst, sometimes being so severe that they stop us in our tracks.
Luckily, there are a number of home remedies to help relieve painful period cramps that can be used in conjunction with standard pain killers, including hot water bottles, exercise and sex. However, if your cramps are so severe that you cannot continue with your everyday activities and if they are stopping you from going to work, you should book an appointment with your doctor for some professional help.
This is exactly how to beat your period cramps, according to doctors
How often should I change my tampon?
It's generally recommended that you change your tampon every 4-6 hours regardless of your flow. However, if you're very heavy you may need to change it more frequently.
The reason why medical professionals recommend regular changes is to lessen the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, a serious medical condition that can result from the use of internal period products such as tampons and menstrual cups.
What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?
Although rare, Toxic Shock Syndrome is worth being aware of as it can be life-threatening. The condition is caused by bacterial toxins and causes a high fever, a sunburn-like rash, and confusion accompanied by low blood pressure, which can rapidly progress to coma, and ultimately multiple organ failure.
The prognosis is dramatically improved if the condition is recognised in its initial stages and treated immediately with intravenous antibiotics and supportive care in hospital, and can take two or three weeks to recover from.
I accidentally left my tampon in for ages, what should I do?
Firstly, remove it immediately. Then, depending on how you feel and how long you've left it in, you can either monitor yourself closely, looking out for a rash and checking your temperature. If you're really worried, you can visit your local GP service, call 111 or out-of-hours clinic for advice.
If you do develop a combination of the symptoms associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome, go to A&E.
What should I do if I can't get my tampon out?
Don't panic. Your tampon cannot get lost up in there - it's not physically possible. But it is important to get it removed as soon as possible to avoid the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome and other vaginal issues.
If you've tried your best to remove it yourself to no avail (relaxing and pushing down as if you doing a poo helps) then you'll need to go to your nearest sexual health clinic or GP practice as soon as possible.
Why is my cycle erratic?
An adult’s cycle can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days (in the teens, up to 45 days). Some women never have regular periods, but if yours are becoming more random – or if you’re suddenly skipping two months (or more) – tell your doctor. The most common cause is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which often occurs in your twenties. It’s a complex condition, so a doctor will discuss treatments with you.
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What does it mean if I'm spotting after sex?
Any amount of blood after sex can be scary. If it’s a relatively rare thing, though, you don’t need to worry. Happening often? Head in for a check-up. It could be an infection, such as bacterial vaginosis, a cervical polyp or a sign of an STI.
How long should my period last?
There's no correct length of time that your period should be. Some people experience a period of 2 or 3 days, while some report bleeding for over a week. If you do have a longer period and tend to experience heavy bleeding, check in with your doctor to ensure you're not becoming anaemic.
Birth control can often disrupt the length of your period, especially if you've just started it, and can even cause continuous bleeding and spotting, but it usually resolves itself on its own: after two to three months on the Pill, or three to six months with an intrauterine device (IUD, also known as the coil). If the bleeding doesn’t improve in that time, talk to your doctor about switching methods. And if you’ve been on the same birth control method for a long time and start spotting, your doctor should know that too – the bleeding could be caused by an infection or a benign growth.
And if it’s MIA?
First, take a pregnancy test. But if you’re not pregnant or on a hormonal birth control* method and you’ve gone three months or more without a period, it’s time to be evaluated. (*Occasionally skipping a period is normal – sometimes the hormones do such a good job of thinning out your uterine lining that you don’t bleed at all.) The most common cause in your twenties and thirties is PCOS – early diagnosis is the best way to manage symptoms. In your forties, it could be peri-menopause (the transition to menopause). But if you have an IUD or the contraceptive implant, having your periods stop is common. I tell my patients: enjoy not having to buy tampons.
Could it be endometriosis?
Stars Daisy Ridley and Lena Dunham have discussed their struggles with endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue that normally grows inside the uterus starts to grow outside it. In the UK, one in ten women of reproductive age suffer from it but, traditionally, “It’s not a condition many women are aware of,” says gynaecologist Dr Jamie Renslo. Thanks to the headlines, though, more women with abnormal bleeding are wondering whether endo is the cause. Heavy periods and spotting are two symptoms, but a better indicator? Your cramps. “The severity of the pain is the distinguishing factor,” says Dr Renslo; endo-associated cramps are usually so intense that they interfere with your quality of life. (Another tell-tale sign is difficulty getting pregnant.) It takes surgery to look for other causes of the symptoms and confirm a diagnosis, so if your doctor suspects you have endo, they may try to treat it first. Various methods of contraception can suppress the growth of uterine lining, which can help to relieve symptoms.
"Endometriosis took away my dreams of having a big family, but I'll never stop fighting it"
What are my options when it comes to period products
There's a lot of chat over all the pros and cons of different period products. The fact is, you'll know what best suits your lifestyle and your period but why not read up on the realities of period pollution, and if you're curious about menstrual cups, we've got the answers to all your questions with our tried-and-tested review.