For most women, periods operate like clockwork. They start a fixed number of days after the last time they began, give or take a couple of days or so, then last a few days before the cycle begins again. But some women’s cycles aren’t quite so reliable. Keep reading for a few frequently asked questions and answers about irregular periods.
What are irregular periods?
While the length of your menstrual cycle will vary from woman to woman, anywhere between 21 and 35 days between the first day of your last period and the first day of your next one is considered normal. A typical menstrual cycle lasts about 28 days—more or less once a month.
A period can be considered irregular if the gap between the first day of your previous period and the first day of the next one keeps changing.
What causes irregular periods?
Irregular periods (when the gap between your period start days keeps changing) can be normal for teens as a symptom of puberty and those undergoing menopause. They may also be caused by:
- certain types of medication
- early pregnancy
- imbalances in your body’s hormone levels
- exercising too much
- heightened stress levels
- extreme changes in weight (both gain and loss)
- medical conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hyperthyroidism, issues with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, and so on
While having occasional irregular periods may not be reason to worry, please consult a doctor if you are not menopausal but experience abnormally long or short period gaps (less than 21 days or more than 35 days), if your periods continue to be irregular over time, or if menstruation lasts over a week.
Do I need to track my periods if I’m irregular?
Yes, it is always a good idea to keep track of your periods, and this is especially true if you are irregular so that you can monitor any patterns. Moreover, your doctor will likely ask you questions about your menstrual cycle to get a better idea of your reproductive health, so it is a good idea to have this information on hand.
Apart from just marking off the start dates for your period, you may also want to track how many days you menstruate for (by taking note of the last day of your period) as well as details like heaviness of flow and any menstruation symptoms you may experience, such as cramps or headaches.
Are there things I can do to make my periods more regular?
If your irregular periods are caused by stress or unusual dieting or exercise habits, you may want to focus on self-care to see if this helps you regularize your cycle. Take de-stress breaks and practice meditation or journaling to assist with high stress levels. Talk to a trainer or nutritionist to manage weight loss or gain and also keep yourself from over-exercising.
You may also ask your doctor to prescribe hormonal contraceptives, many of which affect how often you get your periods. The Pill is commonly prescribed to help with irregular periods.
Do irregular periods increase or decrease my chances of getting pregnant?
Irregular periods are often associated with difficulties in getting pregnant, but this is because they are often indicators of underlying conditions that make conception more difficult. PCOS or issues with other parts of the reproductive system as well as the thyroid, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and gonadal glands can reduce your chances of becoming pregnant.
But just because your periods are irregular, it doesn’t mean that you are unlikely to get pregnant and can forego contraception. It also means that you may not be so quick to identify a pregnancy in its early stages, as many women only become concerned on this front when they miss a regular period. Thus, it is a good idea to practice safe sex until you are ready to become pregnant.
What kind of birth control can I use if my periods are irregular?
Irregular periods should not bar you from using birth control methods such as the Pill, the Depo-Provera injection, IUDs, or barrier methods like the condom. In fact, your doctor may encourage you to do so as some of these contraceptive methods help regulate your periods. Before choosing a method, however, please consult your doctor and work with them on finding the method best suited for your body and lifestyle.
If your periods are irregular, you may find that natural family planning methods, or fertility awareness methods (FAMs) may be less effective for you. These include the calendar, temperature, and cervical mucus methods, which help you track your ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy without the aid of medication or devices. If your periods are irregular and you wish to use fertility awareness methods exclusively, you may want to practice a combination of all three methods to increase effectiveness.
I have irregular periods but suspect I may be pregnant. What should I do?
If you suspect you may be pregnant, you should stop taking any medication that could prove detrimental to your or the baby’s health and consult your doctor. If you prefer, you can first take a home pregnancy test.
If you are very early on in your pregnancy, false negatives are more likely. Home pregnancy test results are more likely to be accurate if you take the test at least three weeks after having unprotected sex. Should the results be positive, see your doctor at the soonest possible opportunity. If your results are negative, you may want to take the test again at a later date to make sure, or you may consult a doctor to dispel any doubts.
What signs should I watch for in case my irregular periods are caused by something serious?
Irregular periods can be caused by early pregnancy, medication you may be taking, hormonal imbalances, excessive exercise or stress, extreme weight loss or weight gain, and certain medical conditions like PCOS or hyperthyroidism. Thus, you should consult your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Sudden irregularity of periods (for those under 45)
- Period gaps outside of the 21- to 35-day norm
- Menstruation lasting longer than 7 days
- Large difference between shortest and longest menstrual cycles