Periods: Important things to know

When will I get my period? How am I going to manage it? What does it feel like? It’s common to have questions about your period. Here are some important things to know about periods, personal hygiene products and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Throughout this article, Kids Help Phone uses the term “female body” when talking about the changes that happen to people who are born with female sex organs, hormones and chromosomes. However, it’s important to note that not everyone who is born with female sex organs identifies as female or a girl, and that’s OK.

As the female body matures and develops, one of the biggest changes you may experience is getting your period (also known as menstruation). Essentially, a period is when blood and tissue leave the body from the vagina every month. Once you start getting periods (and even just before), your body is capable of becoming pregnant.

How do periods work?

Although there’s no way to tell when you’ll get your first period, it usually occurs during puberty — between the ages of 10 and 14 — and about two years after breasts begin to develop. However, your period may start earlier or later — everyone develops at their own pace. Usually, you’ll start to notice a clear or white discharge up to six months before your first period starts. Once you start getting periods, you can expect to have them until around age 50.

Here’s how periods work:

  1. During puberty, part of your brain (the pituitary gland) produces chemicals known as hormones. These hormones tell the ovaries (two sacs that produce/release eggs and hormones) to start making other hormones called estrogen and progesterone. These hormones help the reproductive system develop and prepare for a possible pregnancy.
  2. About once per month, one of the ovaries releases an egg during a process called ovulation. The egg travels down a fallopian tube (a channel that transfers eggs) into the uterus. The uterus (a hollow, muscular, pear-shaped organ in the pelvis) connects to both ovaries via fallopian tubes on either side.
  3. To prepare for a possible pregnancy, the lining of the uterus (called the endometrium) thickens into a cushion of blood vessels and tissue. If the egg is fertilized by a sperm (a component of semen found in the male body), it may attach to the lining of the uterus and grow into a fetus. If the egg is not fertilized by a sperm, the lining of the uterus leaves the body through the vagina. This process is known as getting your period (or menstruation).

Periods typically occur about once per month and can last anywhere from two to seven days at a time. Periods may be longer, shorter, consistent or irregular depending on the individual. You’re more likely to get pregnant during certain days of your cycle (the monthly menstrual process). Things that may affect your cycle include:

  • nutrition
  • stress
  • exercise
  • the pill and/or other medication
  • weight
  • sleep
  • drugs and alcohol (including smoking)
  • age

During menstruation, the uterus sheds about 30 to 80 millilitres (two tablespoons to one-third of a cup) of blood and tissue. Some people choose to use personal hygiene products with their periods, including:

  • pads (reusable or disposable)
  • tampons
  • menstrual cups
  • period underwear
  • menstrual sponges

These products can help you manage your period and help prevent leaks. It’s important to use the type of product that works best for you. If you have questions about your cycle and/or personal hygiene products, you can talk to a doctor, pharmacist, parent/caregiver or teacher.

What is premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?

In the weeks before their monthly period, some people experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS is a series of emotional and physical symptoms your body goes through as it prepares to shed its uterine lining. PMS symptoms may include:

  • cramps (caused by the uterus contracting as it sheds its lining)
  • breast tenderness
  • trouble with digestion
  • bloating
  • headaches
  • pimples
  • trouble with sleep
  • mood changes (more emotional highs and lows)
  • food cravings
  • back pain
  • muscle/joint pain
  • trouble with concentration

PMS can occur on a spectrum — some people experience very few symptoms, while others experience many severe symptoms that require treatment from a doctor. Although you may not always be able to get complete relief, it’s good to know there are things you can do to cope with PMS. These ideas can help reduce PMS symptoms for some people:

  • exercise regularly
  • eat nutritious foods (i.e. cut back on sugar, salt and caffeine)
  • drink water
  • try meditation
  • take a warm bath
  • try over-the-counter pain medication (as advised by a doctor or pharmacist)
  • place a hot water bottle/heating pad on your stomach/back

If you have any questions or concerns about periods, you can talk to a doctor or other safe adult. You can always call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868.

Need more information or support? You can contact Kids Help Phone 24/7.