Periods: What's Normal?

The gynecology team at All About Women clinic answer common questions about the difference between normal and abnormal periods

If you are like a lot of women, you're a planner. You like to know when your period is going to happen and what to expect. If it shows up five days late one cycle and a week early the next, you may start to wonder if there is something wrong with you.

Besides varying cycle lengths, many women experience issues like a heavy menstrual flow or painful periods. And while your period may be hard to manage, you make think it's a normal part of a woman's cycle.

The fact is that menstrual cycles are very complex and can be affected by your lifestyle, your hormones, and even underlying health issues. Below, our expert gynecologists answer questions about what's technically defined as a normal period and when you should seek help for period abnormalities.

What's A Normal Cycle Length and What if the Length of My Cycle Varies?

You've probably heard that a woman's cycle is usually 28 days. Well that is just an average. By clinical definition, a normal cycle lasts anywhere from 21 to 35 days. For young teens, a cycle can be anywhere from 21 to 45 days.

While certain women have periods that are extremely regular, it's normal for the length of your cycle to vary from month to month.

In fact, your cycle lengths would have to vary by 20 days or more for a gynecologist to clinically consider them abnormal!

For many women, the length of their cycle can be affected by lifestyle factors like:

  • Stress
  • Changes in exercise routine
  • Dieting, gaining or losing weight
  • Illness

The next time your period is later than usual, consider what's happening in your life. Realizing that your period is probably late because you had the flu can give you piece of mind.

Are My Cramps Normal? When Should I Tell My Doctor?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a surprising 90% of women are thought to suffer from a condition called dysmenorrhea, more commonly known as "the cramps." Along with debilitating cramping, women may also experience nausea or vomiting, headache and diarrhea for up to the first three days of a period. Period pain can be especially bad for young women during the first few years of their period.

Usually dysmenorrhea is considered "normal" because it's not caused by any underlying health condition. Even so, treatments (such as Ibuprofen or other NSAIDs and hormonal birth control) are available.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is period pain caused by health conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. Your gynecologist will need to treat the underlying condition to truly relieve your symptoms.

The long story, short? Always talk to your doctor about period pains. That way you can rule out any potential health problems and also learn how to effectively manage your symptoms.

When is a Period Abnormal?

There are many different types of abnormal periods. A period can be abnormal because of its frequency of occurrence, its absence or its flow. Here are five common types of abnormal periods:

  • Amenorrhea: When a woman's period doesn't occur for more than 90 days and she is not pregnant. Amenorrhea can be an issue for women athletes. It can also occur in breastfeeding mothers, women who have eating disorders, or women with serious medical conditions. Amenorrhea could point to polycystic ovary syndrome, which can affect long-term fertility, so always talk to your doctor if your period has disappeared.

  • Polymennorhea: Refers to cycles that are shorter than 21 days.

  • Oligomenorrhea: Refers to cycles that occur more than 35 days apart.

  • Menorrhagia: Refers to heavy menstrual flow or bleeding lasting longer than seven days. Having to change your tampon every hour is NOT normal. Learn more about heavy periods.

  • Intermenstrual bleeding: Bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause. Again, this is not normal!

If your period matches any of the above descriptions, you have an abnormal period. The good news is that your gynecologist can help.

What to Do If I Think My Period is Abnormal?

If you don't already, you should track your period. Use a calendar, phone or a downloadable app to keep track of your cycle lengths, flow and symptoms. Having a good idea of the specifics of your period will greatly help your gynecologist decide on the most effective treatment option for you.

At All About Women, our team of gynecologists want you know that your periods don't have to be a pain. There are many treatment options available to you, regardless of the cause of your abnormal periods. Contact our Gainesville or Lake City office to schedule an appointment to discuss how we can help improve your quality of life.