Symptoms of periods 

During your period you'll bleed from your vagina for a few days. The bleeding will usually be the heaviest in the first two days.

How long your period lasts depends on your menstrual cycle. Your period could last for three to eight days, but it will usually last for about five.

The amount of blood you lose during your period will depend on how heavy they are. It's usually about 30 to 72 millilitres (5 to 12 teaspoons), although some women bleed more heavily than this.

If you have heavy periods, there are a number of treatment options available. If your bleeding isn't too severe, you could try using a sanitary towel or tampon with a higher absorbency.

There are also a number of medications to help reduce bleeding. For example, the levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) is a small plastic device that's inserted into your womb and releases a hormone called progestogen. It prevents the womb lining growing so quickly.

Alternatively, tranexamic acid tablets work by helping the blood in your womb clot.

Read more about treating heavy periods.

Before your period

The changing levels of hormones in your body before your periods can cause physical and emotional changes. For example, your breasts might get bigger, you may feel bloated or you may cry more easily.

You also may have pain or discomfort in your lower abdomen or back, which may last for some or all of your period.

If you have pain or discomfort, there are a number of self-help techniques you can try, such as using painkilling medication (paracetamol or NSAIDs), gentle exercise, applying a heat pad or hot water bottle to your tummy, and massaging your lower abdomen.

If paracetamol or NSAIDs aren't providing enough pain relief, your GP may be able to prescribe a stronger painkiller such as codeine to take as well.

Read more about treating painful periods.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), also known as premenstrual tension (PMT), describes the physical, psychological and emotional symptoms that can occur in the days before a woman's period. However, it doesn't affect every woman who has periods.

There are many possible symptoms of PMS. Some of the most common physical symptoms are:

  • fluid retention and feeling bloated
  • tummy pain and discomfort
  • headaches
  • changes to your skin and hair
  • backache
  • muscle and joint pain
  • breast tenderness
  • insomnia (problems sleeping)
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • nausea
  • weight gain (up to 1kg)

Common psychological symptoms of PMS include:

  • mood swings
  • feeling upset or emotional
  • feeling irritable or angry
  • depressed mood
  • crying and tearfulness
  • anxiety 
  • difficulty concentrating
  • confusion and forgetfulness
  • restlessness
  • decreased self-esteem

Symptoms such as fluid retention, feeling bloated, mood swings and irritability will usually improve when your period starts. They'll disappear completely a few days after your period has finished.

Some women also experience period pain (dysmenorrhoea). It's usually felt as muscle cramps in your lower tummy, which can sometimes spread to your back and thighs. The pain may come in intense spasms or it may be dull but more constant. It usually starts when the bleeding begins and lasts for 12-24 hours.

Other symptoms such as weight gain will need to be addressed with diet and exercise.

Read more about treating PMS.

Changes in your periods

Your periods can change – for example, they may last longer or get lighter. This doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem, but it does need to be investigated. You can go to see your GP or you can visit your nearest women's clinic or contraceptive clinic.

Bleeding between periods, after having sex or after the menopause needs to be checked by a doctor. It might be caused by infection, abnormalities in the cervix (the neck of the womb) or, in rare cases, it could be cancer.

Read more about what causes bleeding between periods.

If you miss a period and you've had sex, you could be pregnant. Find out about taking a pregnancy test. See your GP if you're not pregnant and you've missed two or three periods.

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Sanitary towels, tampons and menstrual cups

Sanitary towels and tampons absorb the blood released during your period.

Tampons need to be changed regularly (follow the instructions on the packet). This reduces the risk of toxic shock syndrome (a rare but serious infection).

Menstrual cups are an alternative to tampons and sanitary towels. They're made of medical grade silicone and are worn inside the vagina.

Menstrual cups collect menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. Unlike sanitary towels and tampons, which are thrown away after use, menstrual cups can be used again.

Page last reviewed: 03/10/2013

Next review due: 03/10/2015