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Girls' bodies Q&A

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

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 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 your vaginal area is itchy or sore. These symptoms may mean you have an infection, such as thrush, which is common and easily treated.

If the discharge becomes smelly or green and 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 or visit a sexual health clinic. Advice is free and confidential, even if you're under 16.

Read about 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.

Watch this animation about the menstrual cycle.

Video: menstrual cycle

This animation explains in detail how the menstrual cycle works.

Media last reviewed: 21 October 2020
Media review due: 21 October 2023

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.

Both tampons and pads are safe and suitable. You may want to use pads for your very first period, though, as tampons can take a bit more getting used to.

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 rare but life-threatening infection called toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which can affect men and women. It's not known why, but a lot of these cases occur in women who are wearing tampons, particularly highly absorbent (heavy) ones.

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 8 days, although it usually lasts about 5 days. The bleeding is heaviest during the first 2 days.

During your period, your blood flow may seem heavy, but the actual amount of blood is equivalent to between 5 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.

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 it can be anywhere between 21 and 40 days.

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

Once your period has started, these symptoms usually improve. They disappear when your period has ended.

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 national 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. You can also do a pregnancy test yourself using a test kit bought at a pharmacy or supermarket. 

Find sexual health services near you.

Are my breasts too small?

No. Every woman is different, and everyone's body develops at its own rate. There is no "normal" breast size.

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 non-cancerous (benign).

There's no set method of checking your breasts, but get to know what they look and feel like so you'll notice any changes. 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 (formerly called a smear test) is a test where cells are taken from a woman's cervix (located above the vagina) to check for abnormal cells that could lead to cervical cancer. Detecting and removing abnormal cervical cells through screening can prevent cervical cancer.

In England, cervical screening tests are offered to women from age 25 upwards every 3 to 5 years. You can request a screening test before this age if you're concerned – talk to your GP.

What is the hymen?

The hymen is a ring of thin skin that covers part of the opening of the vagina. It does not cover the vagina completely. 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 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 the national sexual health helpline on 0300 123 7123. You can get free and confidential advice about sex, contraception and abortion even if you're under 16.

Find sexual health services near you.

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. Find out about the methods of contraception available on the NHS.

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 to have an orgasm during sex.

Find out 15 things you should know about sex.

Page last reviewed: 14 August 2018
Next review due: 14 August 2021