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What Is a Normal Period?

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Women, especially younger women, are usually anxious to know whether their bodies are normal. After all, the menstrual cycle isn’t something you bring up every time you meet another women, so it’s not likely you’ve conducted your own informal research to find out how your cycle compares to those of your friends. Many women have read in books or heard from someone else, like their mother or a doctor, that a “normal” cycle last 28 days and that bleeding lasts for five days. So when their cycle fails to match this textbook version, they worry. Or, women who have always had “normal” cycles see frequency or duration changes happen in their 20s, 30s, or 40s and become concerned that something is wrong.

The truth is that there is a wide range of normal ( when it comes to the menstrual cycle. “Average” means just that – the average of all the possibilities. In the majority of cases where a woman goes to her doctor concerned about menstrual changes or problems, there is nothing wrong. Irregular periods, especially in adolescents, are almost always normal. Even when a cycle is regular, it may be a 25-day cycle or a 40-day cycle, anything in between, or even something outside of this range.

It is a very good idea for women to maintain a calendar or chart in order to keep track of her cycle. This is imperative if a woman is trying to conceive, but even if she’s not, a chart can give her something more reliable than her memory to fall back on should she need to see a gynecologist for any related reason. She will need to be able to tell her doctor when her last period was, whether her cycle is usually regular, and any other information her doctor might need.

When a sudden change in a woman’s menstrual cycle does happen, there are several things that can cause it, such as weight gain or loss, beginning a new exercise program, stress, an interruption of the woman’s normal routine, or even just routine changes that happen with age.

When Concern May be Warranted

If a 16-year-old girl has had no periods at all, there may be a hormonal issue that needs attention. Likewise, when periods suddenly stop in women who have previously had regular periods, and pregnancy can be ruled out, an examination is in order to discover the underlying cause. Unusually frequent bleeding should be investigated to rule out polyps or hormonal issues. Severely painful cramps or unusually heavy bleeding should also prompt a woman to check with her doctor.

Anytime you have a question about whether or not something is normal, check with your gynecologist to be on the safe side. But realize that what constitutes a “normal” period simply means what is normal for your individual body.  Using that as an internal standard is the best definition of “normal”.  And, if something is different “your” normal, then you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.