that tells you your reproductive system -- the system that will some day let you have children -- is starting to work. Unofficially…well, it can be just plain icky. It's inconvenient and sometimes painful. It's often something that makes you different from your friends. And even before it happens, it can be the cause of a lot of anxiety and anticipation…like, what if you get it at a bad time?
Laura, 12, told us that getting her period really scared and embarrassed her because it happened when she was in the middle of a mall! She also hates having PMS because sometimes it makes her do things that make people mad at her.
Samantha, 12, says, "The part of puberty that has impacted me the most is, well I would have to say definitely my period! The scariest part of it was when I went to the bathroom and saw brown stuff in my underpants. That may sound a little gross but that was the scariest part of it."
No doubt about it: periods are a BIG DEAL. They always have been. Did you know that many cultures actually celebrate a girl's first menstruation as the start of a new phase of life? Having a period is nothing to be embarrassed by or ashamed of. It's normal, natural, and just part of what it means to be a young woman. But if you don't have all the facts or feel confused by the whole thing, that can be scary. So let's get the full scoop.
Before we talk about how and why menstruation happens, you'll need to know a few terms:
- Vagina: This is the opening between a woman's legs. It's surrounded by folds of skin that look kind of like sideways lips. These are called labia.
- Cervix: This is a ring of muscle at the end of the vagina, sort of like a "doorway" into the uterus.
- Uterus: Also called the "womb," the uterus is where a baby grows and matures when a woman is pregnant.
What is menstruation?
Some time after you start puberty, you'll start getting a "period" every month, on average. During this period, blood, and tissue (thick, dark stuff) will come out of your vagina.
When will it happen?
A girl's first period can happen anywhere between the ages of 8 to 16. Once it starts, it will come back about once every 28 to 32 days. In the beginning, your period might not be this "regular." You might skip a period, or have two that are only a couple of weeks apart. In most cases, this will settle into a regular once-a-month cycle.
Isn't bleeding dangerous?
If you have a cut or a wound, bleeding is dangerous. But the kind of bleeding you do during your period is normal, and is almost never dangerous. You will only lose a few ounces of blood when you menstruate…a tiny bit compared to the many quarts of blood you have in your whole body.
What should you do?
Since you don't want this blood to stain your underwear or pants, you should use a pad or a tampon to soak up the blood.
- Pads: A pad goes outside your vagina. It usually has peel-and-stick tapes on one side, and you stick these to the inside of your underpants, with the other side of the pad pressed against your vagina. The pad will soak up the blood as it comes out. Pads come in different shapes and sizes, and even as "pantiliners", which are thin pads for days when your period is very light. Although pads are easier to use, they can feel weird and bulky, especially during physical activity; also, you can't use them while swimming.
- Tampons: A tampon goes inside your vagina. It's about the size and shape of your pinky finger, and made of a cottony material. It comes inside a special plastic or cardboard tube, and this is what you use to put it in. The tampon will soak up the blood before it can leave your vagina. It will also expand a little, blocking the flow of blood. A little string hangs from the tampon and out of your vagina, so that you can pull the tampon out when you're done with it. Sometimes people use tampons with pantiliners for double protection. Tampons come in different sizes, scents, and levels of "absorbency" (how much they can hold), so you might have to experiment to find the one you like best. They may feel strange at first but once you get used to them, you probably won't notice you have one in!
If you do use tampons, be aware that there's a very rare condition called toxic shock syndrome that's sometimes linked to tampon use. To stay safe, be sure to follow recommendations on how long to leave each one in and how much absorbency you need.
Many people choose to start using pads when they first start their periods, then move on to tampons; or they decide they prefer pads in general and stick with them. Perhaps in your family's culture, tampons aren't used at all for various reasons. Talk to your mom, sister, or trusted female family member about what options are right for you!
Is every girl's period the same?
Nope. Not only do girls start their periods at different ages, and get them at different times of the month, but some get shorter ones (as little as 3 days) and some get longer ones (up to a week). Also, some girls have "light" periods (as little as one ounce of blood), and others get "heavy" periods (as much as 3 ounces).
What else happens during your period?
If you've ever heard someone say, "I'm totally PMS'ing!" they're talking about all the extra not-so-fun stuff that comes with having your period. PMS stands for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome; here are some of the symptoms:
- Bad moods. The hormone surge that happens during your period can make you feel anxious, depressed, or give you mood swings. This is a tough one for many girls, because they may unintentionally make friends and family mad at them.
- Cramping and pains. As your period starts, you might get cramping in your lower body, tenderness in your breasts, headaches, or body aches.
- Swelling and bloating. During your period you might seem a bit puffy or "feel fat." Your breasts might swell a little, and your clothes might feel tighter.
- Breaking out. Those hormones again. The Zit Fairy likes to come visit when you're getting your period.
Like everything else, these symptoms will be different for each girl. Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter medications that might help relieve some of the aches and pains.
Why does it happen?
Girls and women get periods so that, some day, they can get pregnant and have children. You were born with thousands of tiny eggs or "ova" which, if fertilized, can grow into babies. Starting with puberty, each month one of these eggs travels into the uterus. The uterus gets thick with blood and mucous to nourish and protect the egg. If the egg isn't fertilized, this blood and mucous isn't needed, so it passes out through the vagina. The egg simply dissolves, and the next month, a new egg is released and the whole cycle starts again.
How to deal
Maybe you got your period earlier than you wanted or expected, and feel like you had to leave behind a part of childhood before you were ready. Maybe you feel like you're desperate for your period to start, because most of your friends have theirs or you want people to see you as more grown up. Periods can cause a lot of complicated emotions; keep in mind that whatever you're feeling is totally natural. Still, here are some ideas for coping:
- Talk about it. In many families, subjects like menstruation are just not discussed…but you can try to change that. Ask your mother, sister, or another female family member about their period-related experiences. You might break the ice with questions like "Did you ever feel like you didn't want your period anymore?" or "Did you ever have an embarrassing moment with your period?"
- Rely on your friends. Whether you and your pals have started their periods or not, you can relieve a lot of anxiety by opening up to them. You might feel embarrassed or judged by even your BFF, because periods are a very sensitive subject, but remind yourself that she's going through something similar.
- Look for the funny. Humor can really save a mortifying moment. For instance, Samantha, 12, told us this story: "One month, I forgot my period was due and I was playing volleyball in the gym, and also wearing white shorts. I got a big red stain on my shorts, and everybody was looking at me weird until my best friend told me that I had got my period. I mean to most people, that would have been the most embarrassing thing in the world, but for me it wasn't. I actually had the nerve to laugh it off!"
- Write about it. Spill your guts in a journal, or compose a letter "to" your period that starts with something like, "Dear Period: When are you coming?" or "Dear Period: I hate you!"
- Focus on what makes you happy. If you're feeling down because having your period means you have to deal with all this "adult stuff," try to concentrate on the interests and activities that remind you how much fun it is to be a tween. Rent a silly movie, go roller skating, swing around on the playground…whatever strikes your fancy.
- Be prepared. If you're stressing about your period coming at a bad time, ask a parent about keeping "emergency supplies" -- like a pad and change of underwear -- in your backpack or locker. Make a mental note of who you could ask for help in an awkward situation, like a friend or teacher.
- Get your questions answered. If you still have questions about your period, talk to a parent, school nurse, doctor, health teacher…anyone you trust to give you the information you need to feel more in control and less anxious.