There are some period problems that are unfortunately par for the course, like cramps, irritability, and bleeding more than you would like to be bleeding from your vagina.
But there are also some period problems that you should bring up to your doctor—just in case—because they're a bit outside of what's normally expected during menstruation. Here are some things to keep an eye out for.
The clinical term for an exceedingly heavy or long period is menorrhagia. These are basically horror movie-style periods, but some people don’t even realize this kind of bleeding is abnormal. “One of the biggest problems is someone being so used to heavy bleeding that she underplays the amount,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “She’ll come in and say her periods aren’t too bad, then say she has to change her tampon every hour.” Passing clots larger than a quarter is also a sign your bleeding is too heavy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It’s not just that bleeding way too much or for too long is messy and inconvenient. Losing more than the typical two to three tablespoons of blood during your period or bleeding for longer than seven days can lead to anemia, the CDC says. If you have anemia, you lack enough healthy red blood cells to get oxygen to all your tissues, so you may feel tired and weak, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bleeding too much can also be a sign of various health issues, like uterine fibroids, which are benign growths in and on the uterus that can sometimes come along with problems like pelvic pain and frequent urination. Uterine polyps, which are growths on the inner lining of the uterus, can also cause heavy bleeding, as can cervical polyps, which are lumps that emerge from the cervix. Both types of polyps are typically non-cancerous but, in rare cases, may contain cancer cells.
The hormonal issue polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can also cause heavy bleeding. Worse, this bleeding can strike after months of an MIA period. This gives your uterine lining a chance to build up over time, leading to an abnormally heavy period when it finally comes, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, tells SELF. PCOS can also cause symptoms like excess face and body hair or severe acne, thanks to high levels of male hormones.
Heavy menstrual bleeding could even be a sign of a disorder that causes you to lose too much blood, like idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). ITP usually comes along with other symptoms like easy and excessive bruising or a rash of reddish-purple dots on a person’s lower legs.
Clearly, figuring out what’s causing your heavy bleeding won’t be easy on your own, so you should see your doctor. They’ll typically ask about your other symptoms and perform exams to determine what exactly is going on, and treatment will depend on what you’re dealing with.
Dr. Streicher’s rule is essentially that if you’re experiencing even an iota of period pain beyond what you’re fine with, it’s too much. The first step is typically to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, since they block hormone-like chemicals known as prostaglandins that cause uterine cramping. If that knocks out your cramps, you’re good to go. If you’re still curled up in the fetal position after a few hours, that’s a sign that you need evaluation, Dr. Streicher says. You’re dealing with dysmenorrhea (severe menstrual cramps), and doctors can help.
There are many different causes of overboard menstrual cramps. Fibroids are a common culprit. So is endometriosis, a condition many experts think happens when tissue lining the uterus travels outside of it and begins growing on other organs. (Other experts believe that tissue is actually different in that it can make its own estrogen, which can create painful inflammation in people with endometriosis.) In addition to causing extremely painful periods, endometriosis can lead to painful intercourse, occasional heavy periods, and infertility, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Adenomyosis, which happens when the endometrial tissue lining the uterus grows into the muscular walls of the organ, can also cause terrible menstrual pain, along with expelling big clots during your period and pain during intercourse.
Pour one out for all the times you thought you’d have a period-free vacation, only for it to show up right as you hit the beach. Fun! Irregular periods could be due to a number of different things that are (at least somewhat) in your control, like stress and travel, Dr. Streicher says. But they can also happen because of various health conditions.
Take thyroid issues, for instance. Hypothyroidism, which is when your thyroid gland in your neck doesn’t produce enough hormones, can lead to an irregular period, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also cause myriad other symptoms, like heavier than usual periods, fatigue, constipation, dry skin, weight gain, impaired memory, and more. Treatment typically involves taking medication that mimics the thyroid hormone.
On the flip side, hyperthyroidism, which is when your thyroid gland is overactive, can cause light or infrequent menstruation, along with issues like sudden weight loss, rapid heart rate, increased appetite, and more frequent bowel movements, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Irregular periods are also a sign of premature ovarian failure, which is when a person younger than 40 starts losing their normal ovarian function, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also cause menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and difficulty conceiving. Doctors can offer estrogen therapy to relieve symptoms like hot flashes (typically in conjunction with progesterone to avoid the precancerous cells that may take hold if you take estrogen alone). They can also counsel you about the possibility of in vitro fertilization if you’d like to physically conceive and carry children in the future.
PCOS and uterine polyps be behind irregular bleeding, too.
While it’s true that you can sometimes randomly miss a period for reasons like stress, you shouldn’t just ignore a long-term missing period. Suddenly being period-free may feel blissful, but you’ll want to make sure there’s not a health issue going on, like PCOS, an eating disorder or excessive exercise affecting your menstruation...or, yes, pregnancy.
“If you’re menstruating normally then suddenly go months without a period, that’s not something to ignore,” Dr. Streicher says. If your period vanishes for three months or longer (this is known as amenorrhea), see your doctor for evaluation.
It’s worth noting that the use of some hormonal birth control methods—especially the hormonal IUD—can make your period basically disappear. Still, check with your doctor, just in case, when this happens.
There are times when this is normal, like if you’ve just started a new type of birth control, or even if you’re pregnant (spotting can be totally fine during pregnancy), Dr. Minkin says. But if nothing in your life has changed and you start spotting between periods, call your doctor for an appointment.
It could be something that’s ultimately pretty harmless, like a benign uterine or cervical polyp that’s causing bleeding between periods. But spotting is also a hallmark of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is the result of sexually transmitted bacteria from infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea spreading to reproductive organs like your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. In addition, pelvic inflammatory disease can cause issues like fever, strange vaginal discharge that smells bad, and burning when you pee.
If you have PID, your doctor will first address the STI in question with antibiotics, says the CDC, then treat your partner for an STI if necessary. Pelvic inflammatory disease is a leading cause of chronic pelvic pain and infertility in women, so if you suspect you have it, treatment is of the essence.
More rarely, spotting in between periods can be a sign of cervical cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cervical cancer can come along with watery, bloody discharge that might have a bad odor and pelvic pain, including during intercourse. Even though this likely isn’t your issue, you’ll want to get checked out, just in case. Treatment for cervical cancer may involve a hysterectomy, radiation, or chemotherapy.
When your estrogen and progesterone drop before your period, you may experience the typical mood swings that mark premenstrual syndrome (PMS). (Bear in mind that this may not be as drastic if you’re on hormonal birth control, which stabilizes your hormones throughout your cycle.)
But if you deal with severe mood swings, irritability, anger, a lack of enjoyment in things you usually enjoy, and other symptoms that affect your life, you may have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD happens when you experience these symptoms in the week before your period, then they start getting better in the first few days of bleeding, and disappear in the weeks after your period. It’s listed in the DSM-5, the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for good reason: This psychological issue can completely turn your life upside down.
“If you suspect you have PMDD, the one thing I would encourage is keeping a daily record of the severity of your symptoms,” Dr. Minkin says. If these symptoms only rear their head the week before your period, PMDD might be your issue. If you realize you’re constantly dealing with them and your period just makes them worse, it might be premenstrual exacerbation, which is another way of saying you have a mental illness like depression that gets worse during your period.
Either way, a doctor can help. If you have PMDD, your doctor may have you take antidepressants in the timeframe when you usually experience symptoms, then stop once your period starts, Dr. Minkin says. (If you have premenstrual exacerbation, they may recommend staying on the antidepressants through the month and potentially upping your dosage in the week before your period.)
Or your doctor may suggest you go on birth control using a synthetic version of progesterone called drospirenone, Dr. Minin says, like Yaz and Beyaz. These are FDA-approved to treat PMDD. Though experts aren’t sure why they can be so successful in this arena, it may be because drospirenone reduces a person’s response to hormonal fluctuations. It’s also a diuretic, meaning it can flush out liquids that could otherwise cause fluid retention and contribute to annoying issues like bloating.
If migraines had any home training, they’d at least leave you alone when you’re about to get your period. Unfortunately, period migraines are indeed a thing.
It’s not that menstruation will just randomly cause migraines in unsuspecting people who have never had one, but women with a history of migraines may experience them before or during their periods, according to the Mayo Clinic, which adds that this may be due to estrogen fluctuations. “They tend to get the headache right as they go into their periods, and it seems to get better after they have had their menses for a day or two,” Dr. Minkin says.
If you’re dealing with this, your typical migraine medication may work for you. As you probably know if you’ve grappled with migraines, the treatment options are legion. They include pain-relieving medications to relieve symptoms ASAP and preventive drugs to ward off migraines altogether, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the former camp, you have choices like anti-nausea meds and triptans, which constrict swollen blood vessels and block pain pathways in the brain. In the latter, you’ve got meds like tricylic antidepressants, which affect brain chemicals like serotonin that may be implicated in migraines.
You have no reason to feel embarrassed about your period—or the myriad problems that can come with it. After all, celebrities are out here talking about menstruation! Some pad commercials even—gasp—use red “blood,” these days! What a time to be alive.
If you’re having period problems, see your doctor for help. If they aren’t committed to relieving your symptoms, that’s a sign you should try to find a more sympathetic medical professional who can help you find the best treatment.