26% of the global population menstruates; and yet, women's period symptoms are often played down, ignored, or dismissed as 'normal.'
You know your body better than anyone else, so what are some menstrual cycle red flags to look out for? From absent or irregular periods to severe pain and everything in between, we’ve come up with a list of 5 period symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore.
Period Warning Signs You Shouldn't Ignore
1. Skipped or Absent Periods
While the most obvious possibility for a missed period may be pregnancy, there are other causes that could be at play when it comes to skipped or absent periods. Some lesser serious reasons could be stress, a recent weight change, a COVID infection or vaccine reaction, or an increase in your workout intensity.
Even if you suspect that one of these lifestyle factors may be the culprit, you should reach out to your healthcare provider if it's been three or more months since your last period, as it could be a sign of an underlying condition like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
Your thyroid health can also play a role in menstrual cycle irregularities, as can certain chronic conditions like Celiac disease and Diabetes.
The bottom line? Getting to the bottom of an absent or skipped menstrual cycle can provide a window into your overall health, so don't hesitate to speak with your doctor if anything seems amiss.
2. Irregular Period or Cycle Length
Your cycle length is the number of days between the first day of one period to the first day of the next. If you're 19 years of age or older, your cycle length should fall between 21-35 days. If you're younger than 19, your 'normal' is between 21- 45 days. Cycles that are shorter or longer, or that change by more than 7 days, from cycle to cycle, should definitely be looked into.
Different than cycle length, period length is the total number of days you bleed, which can last up to 7 days. If the length of your period exceeds 7 days, you should contact your healthcare provider, as this could be a sign that something else is up.
3. Intense Pain or Cramping
Many, if not most, women have experienced mild to moderate cramping right before or during the first few days of their period, which is completely normal.
It’s not normal, however, to have pain that is so intense that it keeps you from engaging in your normal day-to-day activities, lasts for the duration of your entire period or longer, or does not improve when you take over-the-counter NSAIDs like Motrin or Tylenol.
If you are experiencing intense pain and cramping each month, it may be a sign of endometriosis, a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the inside of a woman’s uterus (endometrium) grows outside her uterus in other areas such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the tissue lining the pelvis.
Endometriosis can sometimes be mistaken for other conditions including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ovarian cysts, and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is why it's important to speak with your physician if your period pain is interrupting your daily life.
One thing that can help in the interim is switching your period products to menstrual discs, like the ones from Flex. Discs are a great alternative to tampons for those with severe cramping because of the way menstrual discs sit in the vaginal fornix. The fornix, located in the very back of the vagina, has fewer nerve endings than the vaginal canal, making discs super comfortable to wear all day long. Tampons, on the other hand, sit in your vaginal canal, and once they expand, put pressure on your vaginal walls, which can increase pain and cramping. The more you know!
4. Heavy Bleeding or Bleeding Between Periods
It’s typical to experience one or two heavier days of bleeding during your period. Generally, the bleeding tends to be heaviest in the first couple of days, and when your period is at its heaviest the blood is typically red.
However, if you’re changing pads or tampons more than every two hours, that’s not normal and is considered an extremely heavy flow. If this is the case for you, it's important to seek the guidance of a medical professional as this may indicate a larger health concern.
One condition that may be the culprit is menorrhagia, which is the medical term for menstrual periods with abnormally heavy or prolonged bleeding. While there are some medications and procedures that can help with this condition, choosing the right menstrual products can also be surprisingly beneficial.
Flex Discs, for example, are particularly useful for light to heavy flows, as each disc can hold up to 60 mL of fluid — equivalent to as much as 5+ super tampons. The best part is they can last up to 12 hours, they’re super comfortable (no more clogged tampon feeling), and when inserted correctly, shouldn’t leak at all. Hopefully, products like this can help in some way to ease the anxiety and stress caused by heavy flows as you continue to advocate for additional testing with your healthcare team.
5. Unusual Symptoms
Aside from irregular periods, severe pain, and an extremely heavy flow, if you are experiencing any unusual period symptoms you should seek the help of your OB-GYN or healthcare professional immediately. For example, some period symptoms that are fairly common are constipation, diarrhea, mild rectal pain, feeling tired or irritable, acne, breast tenderness, and mild headaches. Whereas symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or severe mood changes like depression or suicidal thoughts, are not common and should be investigated further.
At the end of the day, you know what's normal for you and your body and what feels abnormal. However, just because something is 'normal' for you — let’s say extreme pain or severely heavy bleeding — that doesn’t mean it’s unproblematic. If you are experiencing any of these menstrual cycle red flags, it could be a sign of a larger health concern, like PCOS or endometriosis, so it's important to seek answers from a doctor. If they won't listen to you or dismiss your pain, get a second opinion until you get to the bottom of the issue. Your physical and emotional health matters.
Brighid Flynn is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband and puppy. She is just beginning her journey toward motherhood.