Periods – what is “normal”?

Katherine Maslowski

Let’s talk about periods! We have made a lot of progress in the last few decades, but periods still tend to be a pretty taboo topic in society. We sometimes have no idea what anyone else’s period is like, so we have nothing to compare our own experience to. This makes it really hard to know whether our periods are “normal” or not! So today we are going to try and change that. Even if you’re not 100% comfortable discussing your periods with other people yet, hopefully, this article can make it easier to tell if yours is similar to other people’s.

NOTE: This article is about periods that are “natural” and not being affected by hormonal contraception (birth control). Hormonal contraception might change your periods (or it might not) so most of the things below apply to people who are not using any hormonal contraception. If your periods still fall into any of the descriptions of “abnormal”, despite your contraception, it would be a good idea to talk to a health professional about it.


“Normal” periods

So, what is “normal”? I have put “normal” in quote marks on purpose. Because everyone is different. And “normal” looks different on everyone.

There are lots of different things about your period that can vary. The length of your cycle, the length of your period, how heavy your period is, and whether you get any other symptoms at the same time.

Length of your cycle

What I mean by cycle length is the time between your periods. The first day of your cycle is the day you wake up bleeding. You then continue counting until the first day of your next period. The “textbook cycle length” is 28 days. But this does not mean that everyone’s cycle is 28 days. In fact, a study of over 600,000 menstrual cycles found that the average cycle length was 29.3 days

The “normal” range for cycle length is 21 – 35 days. Cycles that are shorter or longer than this might indicate a disruption in the hormones that coordinate your cycle and might warrant speaking to a doctor.

Length of your period

Again, everyone’s period is a different length. Some of us only bleed for a few days, others bleed for a week. You will know much better than I do what is normal for you.

Medically speaking, the “normal” range for the length of bleeding is about 3 – 7 days. If you bleed for much longer than this and this bothers you, then you might want to talk to a doctor about whether there is anything that can be done to help.

How heavy your period is

Technically, a “normal” amount of blood to lose during a period is less than 80mL. But when was the last time you measured your period???? (I’m going to guess never!). It is more of an estimate and “heavy” periods are usually defined as blood loss that is difficult to manage or is interfering with your life.

Heavy periods

If you are having to change your period product (e.g. pad, tampon, menstrual cup etc) very frequently or you are flooding through your period products into your clothes then your period is probably heavy.

I have met a lot of women who have heavy periods and think that it is “normal” and they just have to put up with it. This is not the case. There are options of treatments or things that can be done to manage heavy periods if they are interfering with your life.

This article has more information about heavy periods and what can be done to help if you are interested.

Other symptoms

Some people find they get lots of other symptoms before or during their periods. This might include things like breast tenderness, swollen breasts, mood changes, sleep changes, back pain or lower belly pain, appetite changes, changes in sleep, bloating or headaches. You might not experience any of these things and breeze through your periods every month. Some people are not so lucky. “Normal” is whatever is normal for you.

But, (and this is a big but, that I will say many times) your periods should not interfere with your ability to live your life! If they are, then speak to a health professional about what might be causing your symptoms and what can be done about it.

People who suffer severely from these symptoms might have a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). This article has more information if you are interested in finding out more.


Irregular periods

Some people’s periods do not come at the same time every month, or they are hard to predict. This is referred to as having irregular periods. There are a lot of things that can cause you to have irregular periods. If you are young and have only just started having periods, then it is normal for them to be irregular. This is because your body is still working out how the hormones are supposed to work and working out how to ovulate. The same is true as you approach menopause, periods will often become irregular before they stop completely.

There are many other reasons that you might have irregular periods, this article has more information if you are interested.


Painful periods

A small amount of discomfort during our periods can be normal – the uterus (womb) is a muscle that is contracting, and this can be a bit sore. BUT period pain that interferes with your life, stops you from going to work, stops you from doing things you need to do, or even stops you from doing anything you enjoy is not normal. If your periods are interfering with your life in any way then please speak to a health professional about it.

So now what?

As women, we are conditioned not to complain about our periods – “they are just a normal part of life”. This is ridiculous. What do you think would happen if a man bled onto his sheets several nights a month or was in so much pain he couldn’t go to work for a few days every month of his life? He wouldn’t be dismissed as “normal”, that’s for sure!

If you want help with managing your periods then please ask! And if your doctor dismisses you then ask another one! I wish that doctors dismissing women’s concerns wasn’t still an issue but unfortunately it is.

The good news is that there are a lot of very good doctors out there who will listen to you.  And do everything they can to help. It is just a matter of finding them. If you aren’t comfortable talking to a male doctor about these things then you can request a female doctor. We shouldn’t have to put up with bad periods, just because they are “a normal part of life”.

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Posted By  : Katherine Maslowski

Katherine Maslowski

Katherine Maslowski

Katherine is a junior doctor from New Zealand who has experience working in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and is currently studying an MSc in Women’s Health. She is passionate about women’s health and empowering women to learn about their bodies and understand how they work. She is particularly interested in sexual and reproductive health and helping women to make educated, informed choices about their health and wellbeing.