Why do we get periods?

It's almost that time of the month. You feel puffier than a marshmallow and your forehead breaks out in zits. Chocolate is the only thing that calms you down and prevents you from beating up that irritating guy behind you in maths.

Why do girls have to go through this?

Well, for one thing, it's your body's way of preparing for pregnancy. Once you get your period, it means that you are physically able to become pregnant and have a baby – although you don't necessarily feel ready!

Periods happen as a result of hormones released from a gland at the base of your brain called the pituitary gland. These hormones cause an egg to be released. At the same time, the lining of your uterus (or womb) is becoming thicker – like a soft and spongy bed, ready for the egg.

If you have sex while everything is in place, you have a good chance of falling pregnant – unless you use contraception (like a condom). If you don't have sex, the egg does not get fertilised and the uterus lining starts to break down. The blood and tissue from this lining comes out through your vagina over the course of a few days – this is your period.

Most girls start their period between the ages of nine and 16. Between the ages of 11 and 13 is average, but everyone is different.

Periods usually start after other changes to your body have taken place, like your breasts and pubic hair starting to grow. At first, your periods may be a little irregular – you might skip a month or be late by a few days – but this will eventually settle down and come about every 28 days.

What does it feel like?
Many girls feel virtually nothing except a slight trickling sensation. Sometimes when a period begins you may feel backache or cramping. If it becomes very bad, take something with paracetamol (like Panado) and just relax for a while.

If nothing seems to help, it's probably worth seeing your doctor for a check-up.

What should you use?


Pads are rectangles of absorbent material, like cotton wool. They have a plastic lining on the bottom to prevent the blood soaking through. The base has a sticky strip that holds the pad to your underwear, so it can't fall out.

Pads can't really soak up rivers like in ads. No matter how thick they are, they all need to be changed at least every four hours during the day, sometimes more often if your period is heavy.

Very thin pads or panty liners can be worn at the end of your period when the flow is not as great. They are not as thick as normal pads, and are much less easily noticed.

When you change your pad, don't flush it down the toilet, because it is likely that it will block the plumbing. Public toilets usually have special disposal bins for pads. It is more hygienic to wrap the pad in toilet paper before you throw it away – even at home.

Wearing a pad when you go swimming is not a good idea, as the pad gets soaked with water and doesn't do a great job of absorbing the blood. This can be very embarrassing, as the blood would show on your swimming costume or legs.

The advantages of wearing pads are:

  • Some girls find it less intrusive to wear pads as they can be worn on the outside of your body
  • Wearing pads allows you to become familiar with the amount of menstrual flow you experience. This helps you know how often to change your pad.

Some girls are a little nervous about using tampons. They worry that it might hurt, get stuck or even take away their virginity.

Using tampons won't affect your virginity. A virgin is someone who has never had sex. Some people link the loss of virginity with the breaking of the hymen, a piece of skin covering the entrance to your vagina. In nearly all girls though, there is a gap that allows menstrual blood to flow out. Using a tampon doesn't usually break the hymen, although it may stretch it a little.

Tampons are like pads, except the absorbent material is pressed together so that it is small enough to be worn inside the vagina. You can insert them either with an applicator or your finger.

The muscles of your vagina hold the tampon in place, so it can't fall out or disappear inside you.

It is difficult to insert a tampon if your vaginal muscles are clenched – so it is important to relax. Don't try if your brother wants to use the bathroom and he's banging on the door!

A good idea is to use mini tampons at first until you get used to inserting them. Try lubricating the tip of the tampon or the entrance of your vagina first as this will help it slip in easier.

Your vagina slopes up and backwards, towards your spine – so don't aim towards your chin! You should not be able to feel the tampon once it's in properly. The tampon may feel very uncomfortable if it is not inserted properly, so make sure it's inserted far enough. If it hurts while you're trying to put it in, relax and try again later – there's no rush.

Like pads, tampons need to be changed every three to four hours, or more often if your flow is heavier. You can usually flush them down the toilet unless there is a disposal unit or septic tank – so check first.

The advantages of wearing tampons are:

  • You can swim
  • They don't develop a bad smell as easily as pads
  • No one can tell you are wearing a tampon. Sometimes the outline of a pad can be seen under tight clothes
  • Tampons can be carried around more easily – in a pocket or purse

Menstrual cup

This is a relatively new device that quite a lot of women have not yet heard about. It is made of flexible silicone rubber that folds up. You can see pictures of them here and here. You gently push it into your vagina and it opens up to hug the walls of the vagina.

When you need to remove it (every few hours) you tug on a little flap (a bit like a tampon string), nudge it with your forefinger to help it fold up a little, and pop it out. You then empty it into the toilet and rinse it or wipe it with some toilet paper if you are in a public loo and reinsert it.

If you still have a hymen (a small membrane that is broken the first time you have sexual intercourse or, sometimes, during certain sports) you may have a bit of difficulty using it at first, just as you do with a tampon.

The advantages of using a menstrual cup:

* It collects more blood than a tampon so you have to change it less often

* There is no smell

* No one knows you are wearing it – great for tight clothes and sport!

* You don’t have to carry around any extra ones as you reuse this one

* It’s environmentally sound: no pads or tampons going into the sewerage system

Tips if you get blood on your clothes:

  • Sponge it off with cold water on a cloth, tissue or toilet paper
  • If you have a jersey, tie it around your waist until you can change your clothes
  • Carry a spare pair of underwear in your bag
    • You lose about three tablespoons of blood during a period – although it seems like more!
    • If you eat very little or play very strenuous sports, you might stop or delay your periods
    • Being worried, stressed, sick or even going on holiday can cause your periods to be late
    • Your periods will continue until you are about 50. When they stop, you begin a stage in your life called menopause

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated February 2011)

Read more:

Menstruation A-Z



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