Girls' bodies Q&A

Puberty can be a confusing time because your body and your feelings are changing as you grow up. Here are answers to some of the questions that girls ask about their bodies.

Click on the questions below to go directly to the answer.

At what age do you go through puberty?

You'll probably start to notice changes from age 10 upwards, but there's no right or wrong time to start. Some people go through puberty later than others. This is normal. If you have no signs of puberty by the age of 16, see a doctor for a check-up.

Find out more about girls and puberty.

Is discharge from the vagina normal?

Yes, this is perfectly normal. Girls start to produce more vaginal discharge (fluid) as they go through puberty and the hormones in the glands of the vagina and cervix (neck of the womb) begin to work. The fluid helps to keep the vaginal area moist, and protects it from damage or infection.

Before puberty, most girls have very little discharge. After puberty, what's normal for one girl won't be normal for another. Some produce a lot of fluid and some produce very little.

When you start your periods, you'll probably notice that your discharge varies at different times during your menstrual cycle. It might be colourless or creamy white in colour, and it may become more sticky and increase in quantity. Find out about periods and the menstrual cycle.

My discharge smells. Is that normal?

It's not normal if the discharge becomes smelly or green, or if your vaginal area is itchy or sore. These may mean that you have an infection, such as thrush, which is common but easily treated. If you've had sex without using a condom, there's a risk you might have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

If your discharge is different from what's normal for you, see a doctor or nurse. Advice is free and confidential, even if you're under 16.

Read how to keep your vagina clean and healthy.

When should you start your periods?

Girls usually start their periods between the ages of 10 and 16. Most girls start when they’re around 12. As everyone develops at different rates, there's no right or wrong age for a girl to start. Your periods will start when your body is ready, and there's nothing you can do to make them start sooner or later.

If you haven’t started your periods by the time you’re 16, visit your doctor for a check-up.

What should you use when your periods start?

To be prepared for your first period, keep sanitary pads (sometimes called sanitary towels) or tampons at home, and carry some in your bag.

Sanitary pads line your underwear to soak up the blood as it leaves your vagina. Tampons are inserted inside the vagina to soak up the blood before it leaves the vagina. Tampons have a string that hangs outside the vagina, and you pull this to remove the tampon.

Don't flush sanitary pads or tampons down the toilet. Wrap them in paper and put them in the bin. Most women’s toilets have special bins for sanitary products.

There are different kinds of pads and tampons for light, medium and heavy blood flow. Use whatever you find most comfortable. Try different kinds until you find one that suits you. You might need to use different kinds at various points during your period. You need to change your pad or tampon several times a day.

You'll find instructions in the packet on how to use them. Sanitary pads and tampons are available in pharmacies, supermarkets, and some newsagents and petrol stations.

There's a life-threatening infection called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), which affects around 20 people in the UK (men and women) every year. It’s not known why, but a lot of these cases occur in women who are wearing tampons, particularly highly absorbent ('heavy') ones. Find out more about TSS.

If you're worried about anything to do with periods or want more information, talk to an older woman, such as your mum, big sister, the school nurse or a teacher. Your doctor or local contraception or young people’s clinic can also help. Find sexual health services near you.

Is my period normal?

Don’t worry if your periods aren't the same as your friends’ periods. Every girl is different. Bleeding can last up to eight days, although it usually lasts about five days. The bleeding is heaviest during the first two days.

During your period, your blood flow may seem heavy, but the actual amount of blood is equivalent to between five and 12 teaspoons. However, you may have periods that are heavier than normal. This is known as menorrhagia, and there's medication to treat it, so talk to your doctor if you’re worried. Find out more about heavy periods. You can also take the heavy periods self-assessment to see if your periods are heavy.

The average length of the menstrual cycle (from the first day of your period until the day before your next period) is 28 days, although anywhere between 24 and 35 days is common.

Your hormone cycle may affect you physically and emotionally. Some women don’t have any symptoms, but on the days leading up to your period you may have symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. These include:

  • headaches
  • bloating
  • irritability 
  • backache 
  • feeling depressed
  • a general feeling of being upset or emotional
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating
  • breast tenderness
  • some weight gain (up to 1kg)

Once your period has started, these symptoms usually improve. When your period has ended they disappear.

Periods can sometimes be painful. The precise cause of painful periods is unknown, but you may feel pain in your abdomen, back or vagina. It usually starts shortly before your period begins, and lasts for a few days. Painkillers can help. Find out more about treating painful periods.

What if my period is late?

If you're worried about your period, visit your doctor or a local community contraceptive or young persons clinic (call the sexual health helpline on 0300 123 7123 for details). Girls' periods can be irregular for many different reasons, including stress.

Another reason for a late period is pregnancy. If you've had sex without using contraception and your period is late, take a pregnancy test as soon as possible. You can get a test kit from your local doctor, contraceptive clinic or young person’s clinic. Find sexual health services near you. You can also do a pregnancy test yourself, using a test kit bought at a pharmacy or supermarket. 

Are my breasts too small?

No. Every woman is different and everyone’s body develops at its own rate. Don’t worry about what size is ‘normal’.

How do I know if I have breast cancer?

It’s unusual for teenagers to get breast cancer. Lumps, bumps and changes to the breast are common, and most of them are benign (non-cancerous).

There's no set method of checking your breasts, but get to know what they look and feel like so that you'll notice any changes. However, it’s normal for your breasts to change in size or become more tender during your menstrual cycle.

When must I have a cervical screening test?

cervical screening test (sometimes called a smear) is a test where cells are taken from a woman’s cervix (located above the vagina) to check for changes that could lead to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can be prevented if it's detected early through cervical screening.

In England, cervical screening tests are offered to women from age 25 upwards, every three to five years. You should have them whether you're straight, gay or bisexual. Women who have sex with women need to have cervical screening as well as women who have sex with men.

What is the hymen?

The hymen is a very thin piece of skin that stretches across the vagina, just inside the woman’s body. Every girl is born with a hymen, but it can break when using tampons, playing sport, or doing other activities, including having sex.

Do you put on weight when you're on the Pill?

No, there's no evidence that the contraceptive pill causes weight gain. Some girls and women put on weight while they're taking the Pill, but so do girls and women who aren't taking it.

If you’ve got any questions about the Pill or any other methods of contraception, such as the injection, implant or patch, go to a GP, local contraceptive clinic or young person’s service (call 0800 567 123). Find sexual health services near you. 

You can get free and confidential advice about sex, contraception and abortion even if you're under 16.

Can you get pregnant if you have sex during your period?

Yes. A girl can get pregnant if she has sex with a boy, at any time during her menstrual cycle, and can get pregnant the first time she has sex.

That’s why you should always use contraception. There are lots of different methods, including: 

Only condoms help to protect you against STIs and pregnancy, so use condoms as well as your chosen method of contraception every time you have sex.

What is the clitoris?

The clitoris is a small soft bump in front of the entrance to the vagina. It's very sensitive, and touching and stimulating it can give strong feelings of sexual pleasure. This is how most girls masturbate. Most girls and women need the clitoris to be stimulated in order to have an orgasm during sex.

Find out 15 things you should know about sex.

Menstrual cycle: animation

This animation explains in detail how the menstrual cycle works.

Media last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015

Page last reviewed: 28/09/2013

Next review due: 28/09/2015

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