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May 17, 2015

21 Things You Never Knew About Your Period

Let's talk about that thing where you bleed from your vagina every month.

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Considering all the time you spend with your period, it's still pretty damn mysterious. So to find out more, we spoke with two expert OB-GYNs: Dr. Lauren Streicher, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's medical school and author of Love Sex Again, and Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine. Now, let's get down to it:

1. Here's what actually happens during your period:

2. But if you're taking hormonal birth control, you're basically getting a fake period.

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If you're using something like the pill, the ring, the IUD, or the implant, your period is a little different. Those hormones basically tell your body that it doesn't need to produce more progesterone, says Minkin. Without that added progesterone, you don't build up much of a lining each month, so your period tends to be a lot lighter. In most cases, you're also not ovulating each month, though you can still ovulate with the hormonal IUD.

3. It is totally fine and healthy to get no period at all while on birth control.

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Like we said, it's basically an impostor period, so if you have little to no bleeding while using the pill/ring/implant/IUD, that's completely fine, says Minkin. Don't ask questions, just go with it.

4. And skipping your period with birth control is fine, too.

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You might get some breakthrough bleeding, but there's generally no harm in taking birth control back-to-back without a period week, says Minkin. That's actually how continuous birth control methods like Seasonale and Seasonique work. This can be really helpful for people with horrible periods or PMS symptoms, says Streicher. Just check with your doctor before you do it so she can answer any questions you have.

5. Toxic shock syndrome is VERY rare — so it's fine to sleep with a tampon in.

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Both experts swear this is extremely unlikely. Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a very rare but life-threatening complication that can happen as a result of a bacterial infection, and it was associated with the use of super-absorbant tampons in the past. When it was most prevalent in 1980, the rate was only 6 to 12 per 100,000 menstruating women (per the CDC). By 1986, that rate dropped to 1 in 100,000. And, obviously, tampons have changed even more in the last 30 years. That said, it can happen, so if you have a super-high fever, you're nauseous, and your skin is flaking off (the major symptoms), call your doctor ASAP, says Minkin.

But really, you shouldn't be too worried. It's safe to leave a tampon in overnight, says Minkin. Just always use the least absorbant tampon you can get away with, and don't forget about it. Seriously, both experts have had several patients come in with tampons that were left in and forgotten — and they were fine (though smelly).

6. Dark or brown period blood doesn't mean you're dying.

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People tend to fixate on any little change in blood color, says Streicher, but you shouldn't. "Bright red generally means more active bleeding. If it's brown it means it's been sitting around for a while [in the vagina]."

7. A missing period isn't always a sign of pregnancy...but it usually is.

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The most common cause of a missing period (if you're of childbearing age) is pregnancy, says Streicher. But that's obviously not the only reason it can be MIA. It could be stress, weight changes, extreme diet or exercise changes, or a whole host of health conditions (we'll get to those in a bit). If you're worried about it, check with your doctor.

8. The best way to beat period cramps is by taking an OTC pain reliever BEFORE they start.

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Don't be a hero. Cramps are caused by something called prostaglandins, which are released during your period. But taking an anti-inflammatory like Motrin or ibuprofen can actually block the production of more prostaglandins. "The mistake everyone makes is that they think they should use as little medication as possible," says Streicher. "If you start to take medication the day before you get your period or the minute you see that first drop of blood, not only will it dramatically decrease cramping, but it will also decrease bleeding."

If your cramps are severe, hormonal birth control can also keep prostaglandins in check. But if you've tried all that and you're still curled up in the fetal position every month, see your doctor to make sure it's not something else.

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9. PMS is seriously no joke, and it's all your hormones' fault.

10. Just because you get a period every month doesn't necessarily mean you're ovulating.

11. You can get a monthly period and still not be ~regular~.

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First of all, a "normal" period totally depends on the person. The average cycle is 28 days, but if you get your period every 23 days or every 30 days, that's normal, too. What's NOT regular is if the length of your cycle changes from month to month. So if you sometimes have 23 days between periods and sometimes have 30 days, that's considered irregular — even though you're still getting a period once a month. It might also be a sign that you're not ovulating, says Streicher.

12. Occasional irregularities aren't a big deal, but if your period is always unpredictable, it might be a problem for your future fertility.

13. Pretty much any medical condition can mess with your periods.

14. A little ~odor~ during or after your period is also normal, but there's no need for scented tampons.

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"The inside of the vagina should not smell, and all of those chemicals and perfumes and stuff can be irritating," says Streicher. That said, it's not uncommon for you to have some odor with your period, since your vaginal pH levels can get thrown out of whack. Just make sure you're cleaning your genitals safely and you should be fine.

15. Spotting between periods is usually no big deal.

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Some people bleed a little bit during ovulation (around the middle of your cycle), but it can also happen for hormonal reasons or when you're getting used to a new birth control method. It's generally nothing to worry about, but if it happens all the time, tell your doctor.

16. Your period can start ~changing~ as early as your late thirties.

17. Getting your period while pregnant is kind of possible.

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OK, it's not a real period, but about a third of women report bleeding in the first few months of their pregnancy, says Minkin. So it can look an awful lot like a period and it can definitely confuse people.

18. It's normal for your genitals to feel a little tender and sensitive around your period.

19. Passing little clots in your period is normal, too.

20. But if you're soaking through a pad or tampon more than every two hours, that might be an issue.

21. In general, the only reason you should see your doctor about your period is if it changes drastically.

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Like you're suddenly bleeding A LOT, your period is lasting way longer than it usually does, or it's been missing since February. Again, it's probably nothing, but check with your doctor just in case, says Streicher.

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