Irregular Periods

What does your period cycle mean?

Last reviewed: 12 Mar 2019

2 women walking by the beach talking about irregular periods

Key takeaways

  • Period cycles vary between women but most are between 24 and 35 days with an average of 28 days

  • An irregular period is one that is early, late, lasts longer or shorter than normal, is heavier or lighter than normal, or doesn’t happen

  • Irregular periods may not be a problem but see a doctor if they happen very often, or are very unusual

  • They can be caused by many things including contraceptives, lifestyle changes, or other health conditions

  • You can treat the symptoms and some of the underlying causes of irregular periods. The Pill can also help make your periods more regular

Contents of this article

What is a ‘normal’ period?

Every woman’s menstrual cycle is slightly different. This means that what’s normal for one woman won’t be the same for another.

Your menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period, and ends the day before your next period starts. The average length of time between periods is 28 days. However, normal cycles can be slightly less or more than this. Anywhere between 24 and 35 days between periods is perfectly normal.

Most women will bleed for 3-7 days, and lose around 3-5 tablespoons of blood. A period is usually reddy-brownish in colour. However, the length, amount and colour of your period can vary throughout your life due to a number of different factors.

As well as this, your usual vaginal discharge changes throughout the menstrual cycle. It will often get thin and stretchy around the time of your period.

What is an irregular period?

Some women’s periods aren’t always regular. An irregular period is a period that is:

  • late
  • early
  • lasts longer or shorter than usual
  • more or less heavy than usual
  • missing (an absent period is known as ‘amenorrhoea’)
  • painful (known as ‘dysmenorrhoea’)
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My periods are irregular, should I be worried?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of reasons why your period might not be as it usually is. However, it could be a sign that you have a hormone imbalance.

It’s important to let your doctor know if your periods are irregular so that they can rule out any underlying health conditions.

Visit your doctor if:

  • you often have spotting (bleeding) after sex
  • you have spotting between periods
  • you have extremely heavy periods. This is where your period often leaks onto your clothes or bed linen, or where you have to change tampons or pads every hour or so
  • you have painful periods
  • your periods last for more than 7 days at a time
  • you have more than one period a month

If you haven’t had your usual period, and have had sex in the past month, there is a chance you could be pregnant. Take a test at home or visit your doctor to make sure whether or not this is the case.

There are usually very simple explanations for irregular periods. But, rarely, irregular periods are a sign of something more serious. This is why it’s important to get properly checked by a doctor if your periods ever change significantly or you’re worried they could be abnormal.

What can cause irregular periods?

Lots of things can change your normal menstrual cycle and lead to irregular periods. These can include:

  • a change in your usual type of contraception
  • using the contraceptive pill back-to-back
  • a hormone imbalance
  • a poor diet
  • illness
  • certain types of medication
  • stress or anxiety
  • weight loss or gain
  • too much exercise
  • the menopause
  • breastfeeding
  • polycystic ovaries (PCOS)

An irregular period is caused by irregular ovulation. Your ovulation patterns will change throughout your life, after puberty and shortly before the menopause.

A slight amount of variation in your periods is not unusual, and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

What are the treatment options for irregular periods?

Unless there’s a serious reason behind your irregular periods, treatment shouldn’t be necessary.

Treatment is usually only offered if your irregular periods become uncomfortable or distressing for you. In this case, pain relief and medications for heavy bleeds can be offered. However, for most women, irregular periods is a pretty common phenomenon every once in awhile.

If managing your irregular periods becomes an issue, your doctor may prescribe you the combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill. This contains the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, and can help to control your periods.

If your irregular periods are being caused by an underlying condition, such as polycystic ovaries, you will be offered the appropriate treatment for the condition. Your doctor may also suggest some small lifestyle changes, such as a change in diet, to help alleviate your irregular periods. Once this underlying cause has been treated, your periods should return to normal.

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Dr Kathryn Basford is a qualified GP who works as a GP in London, as well as with Zava. She graduated from the University of Manchester and completed her GP training through Whipps Cross Hospital in London.

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Last reviewed: 12 Mar 2019

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