Women deal with periods for such a significant part of their lives that you’d think they’d be experts on the subject, right? Wrong. Even after years of Aunt Flo’s monthly visits, it’s still difficult to know the difference between fact and some very ubiquitous myths.
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For example, is it true that you can’t swim during your period, or that you should avoid sex? Or that you shouldn’t relax your hair? Or exercise? Are you supposed to have a period every month? Can you get pregnant during your period? And what’s a “normal” cycle?
“Many women are clueless about their menstrual cycles,” says Joyce Weckl, NSM, a certified-nurse midwife with California HealthFirst Physicians in Camarillo, Calif. “But it makes sense. How many women sit around talking about the number of pads they soak through, or exactly how long their cycle lasts for each month?”
If you’re curious about your cycle, here’s the truth behind some of the most confusing myths.
1. Skipping a period means you’re unhealthy.
Healthy women occasionally skip a month or two. That’s because hormones don’t fluctuate much in some women, says Mary Rosser, M.D., an ob-gyn with Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“You can go up to three months without having a period, and we’re not concerned,” she says.
Doctors, however, prefer premenopausal women have periods at least every three months to make sure the uterus is shedding its lining.
Hormonal birth control – for example, injectable Depo-Provera, the IUD Mirena or the pill Seasonale – is an exception to the three-month rule because the uterine lining is controlled by hormones, so there’s often little or no build-up.
You also can stop periods with birth control pills by skipping the placebo week and starting the next pack immediately.
That safely eliminates withdrawal bleeding, Rosser says.
2. Food cravings are totally hormonal.
Does your period have you reaching for a Hershey’s bar? You’re not alone: About half of American women report craving chocolate, and about half of those say they crave it when their periods start.
Despite the anecdotal evidence, you can’t blame cravings on pre-period hormone fluctuations, according to a 2009 University of Pennsylvania study published in the journal Appetite. When comparing menstruating and post-menopausal women, the researchers found a difference of only 13% in chocolate cravings.
That means even after menopause, many women still have chocolate cravings.
3. You can’t get pregnant on your period.
You can get pregnant, but it’s rare. Pregnancy occurs when you release an egg (ovulate) and that egg is fertilized by sperm. Normally, a period happens when the egg isn’t fertilized, and you shed the lining of your uterus, along with the non-fertilized egg.
But sometimes you can menstruate without ovulation and ovulation can occur without a period. It’s even possible to release an egg during your period, says Rosser.
You could get pregnant anytime until ovulation ends (and even then, you’re not 100% safe without birth control)!
4. You shouldn’t have sex during your period.
There’s no reason to abstain from sex during menstruation, Rosser says. But use a condom during menstruation to guard against sexually transmitted diseases.
“Blood can (transmit) bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases,” Rosser warns.
And to avoid staining the sheets, “use dark-colored sheets and towels,” she says.
5. You lose a lot of blood while menstruating.
It may seem like you’re shedding quarts of menstrual blood, but it’s just 2-4 tablespoons a day for most women. Any more signals problems, like a hormonal imbalance, fibroids, polyps or problems with your uterine lining.
If you’re going through a super-absorbent pad or tampon every hour or wearing multiple products (for example, a couple of pads or a pad and a tampon), call your doctor right away.
6. Once you start your period, you need annual Pap smears.
“Moms frequently bring their daughters in because they had their first period,” says nurse-midwife Weckl. “But starting to menstruate has nothing to do with getting Paps.”
Instead, sexual activity is the trigger for your first exam. That’s because a Pap test is designed to pick up cervical changes, usually caused by the human papillomaviruses (HPV). There are many strains of HPV and most don’t cause problems, but some can slowly grow into cervical and other gynecological cancers.
Despite some recent new recommendations regarding Pap exam frequency, most gynecologists still recommend that a woman receive a Pap smear every year after her 18th birthday, or as soon as she first becomes sexually active.
7. Pubic hair signals a young woman’s first period.
Some girls start sprouting pubic hair as young as 9 or 10, and don’t get a period until several years later, Weckl says. The best predictor of a girl’s first period is breast development. Menstrual cycles usually start about 2-3 years afterward.
8. A normal menstrual cycle is 28 days.
Actually, it varies from 21-35 days in healthy adult women. In young teens, it’s 21-45, according to Rosser.
9. Tampons are dangerous.
It’s not the tampon, but how long you leave them in that can trigger a dangerous infection like toxic shock syndrome. It can be caused by not changing a tampon often enough.
When used correctly, tampons are safe and TSS is rare.
“I’ve been an ob-gyn for nearly 17 years and I’ve never seen a case of TSS,” Rosser says. “Of course, you should be diligent about changing your tampons.”
That means changing them at least every 4 hours during a heavy flow and no more than every 8 hours on the last, light days of your period. Another great tip is skipping tampons at night and sleeping with a pad instead.
“I also encourage patients to use non-perfumed tampons,” Rosser says.
The more chemicals you introduce into the vagina, the more likely you’ll change its natural environment and end up with an irritation, she explains.
10. You look worse during your period.
You may feel bloated and unattractive during your period. But it’s actually prime man-hunting time. Men find you more desirable then, according to a 2006 study at Charles University in Prague. The researchers asked women to stick cotton pads in their armpits for 24 hours during different times of the month. Then men were asked to smell and rate the pads’ scent.
Men were most attracted to pads worn during the follicular phase (between the first day of menstruation and the onset of ovulation). They also thought women’s faces looked more appealing during this time.
11. If you’re still getting your period, you’re not menopausal.
You usually continue to have your period during perimenopause, the start of menopause, which can last 7-10 years, and traditionally starts in the mid-40s.
“Bleeding is only one symptom of hormonal changes,” Rosser says.
You also can experience hot flashes, vaginal dryness and other menopausal symptoms but still have your period. And some women just stop getting their periods with very little hormonal fanfare. If you wonder how menopause will affect you, talk to an older female relative. It’s genetic, so they may have clues on how you might weather it.