Whether you use a period tracker app (be careful with these!) or turn to a trusty paper calendar, keeping tabs on your cycle is a smart idea. Not only can it help you avoid getting stains on your favorite pants, but it’s also an important piece of your health.
If your body doesn’t seem to be in sync with your notes, however, you’re not alone. It can be hard to accurately nail down the exact date your period will come, even if it’s generally within the same time frame. In fact, several Redditors have had the same question. Basically, do those times count as “irregular” when the timing is only kind of “irregular”?
This question rings even louder at doctors’ offices when nurses ask when your period typically comes, either to check in or as a diagnostic criterion for a hormonal disorder, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
I mean, what do you say without spewing some confusing run-on sentence like, “Well, it came on the 21st last month, and the 30th this month, but that one time it came on the 17th, but generally I’d say the last week of the month, so basically yes, it’s normal, but not like down-to-the-day normal.”
To save you the major awkwardness and confusion, HuffPost asked OB-GYNs to share all you need to know about irregular periods.
A “Normal” Amount Of Irregularity vs. Straight-Up Irregularity
What “regular” entails for your friend may differ from what “regular” looks like for you. People who menstruate “typically get their periods once every 28 days or so,” said Dr. Irina Ilych, an OB-GYN and medical advisor at the women’s health app Flo, noting that for some “this happens like clockwork, but others have cycles that are much less predictable.”
More specifically, she said the “normal” range is anywhere from 21 to 35 days. “If your cycle length is continually less or more than this, meaning your periods arrive less than 21 days or more than 35 days apart, then your periods are considered irregular,” she clarified.
The amount of time in between periods isn’t the only indicator of irregularity, though. Ilych mentioned other signs, too, such as periods that:
- Last a longer or shorter amount of time
- Are heavier or lighter
- Start within a different number of days each month
- Come with significantly increased pain
- Last longer than seven days
What That Means For Your Health
Periods actually offer a good bit of insight into your health. “Gynecologists consider the menstrual period the fifth vital sign after temperature, pulse, breathing rate and blood pressure,” said Dr. Mary T. Jacobson, the chief medical director of Hello Alpha. “Identification of abnormal menstrual patterns can help to improve early identification of potential health concerns.”
However, changes in your cycle don’t always signify a problem. It’s important to note that even if some of the above signs sound familiar, your menstrual health may be just fine.
“It’s crucial to grasp that our menstrual cycles can undergo fluctuations throughout our lives, which may not necessarily indicate a health condition,” Ilych said. Stress, weight changes and excessive exercise are a few contributors to these variations, she added.
“The most common reason is due to not ovulating regularly,” Jacobson said. She clarified that this goes for periods that are more than 35 days apart. However, this can be physiologically normal, she added, for adolescents in the first year of their first period (by 15 years old) and in people who are perimenopausal.
Since irregular periods can lead to irregular or absent ovulation, you may struggle to get pregnant, though. “Despite irregular periods potentially making conception more difficult, it’s essential not to lose hope, as pregnancy can still be possible,” Ilych continued. Various medications and IVF, for example, can help.
Irregular periods can also be attributed to thyroid disorders, PCOS, and other health issues, Ilych said. “These conditions can impact menstrual regularity and require medical attention for proper diagnosis and management.”
Symptoms of thyroid disorders include fatigue, weight changes, diarrhea and feeling hot or cold all the time, to start. PCOS can lead to hair on the face/chest/nipples, scalp hair loss and/or acne, among other signs, according to Jacobson.
On the other hand, if your periods are less than 21 days apart, or are heavier or last longer, you may be looking at different causes. Jacobson pointed to abnormal uterine bleeding, which she said is due to structural causes (polyps, fibroids, hyperplasia, malignancies, etc.) or nonstructural causes, such as ovulatory dysfunction, endometrial issues and medications.
Lastly, don’t forget about pregnancy as a potential reason for changes in your period, even if you’re doubtful. According to Jacobson and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 45% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned.
What To Do If You Think Your Period Could Be Irregular
The short and sweet answer: reach out to your doctor. Ilych discussed how they can provide guidance, answers and support. She especially encouraged this route if you noticed any of the signs of irregularity mentioned above that pertain to when your periods come, how long they last, how heavy and painful they are, and how badly they make you feel.
Other than that, Jacobson advised continuing to track your periods and taking a pregnancy test if needed.
As far as treatment goes, the answer varies. “The treatment for irregular cycles depends on various factors, including the underlying cause, specific symptoms, age and reproductive plans,” Ilych explained. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and a personalized plan should be developed based on individual circumstances.”