What Is Considered An Irregular Cycle?
According to Penn Medicine, between 9-14% of women suffer from irregular periods between their first menstrual cycle and menopause. While relatively common, an irregular period can be incredibly frustrating. It can be difficult to know when your body is just having an "off" month or when there's a greater cause for concern.
It's all difficult to determine what is considered an irregular cycle when every woman's body is different. Understanding your body will help you tell if your menstrual cycles are irregular. Irregularity mostly refers to what's not normal for your body.
This guide will discuss irregular menstrual cycle symptoms and what you can do to combat them.
What Is an Irregular Period?
According to Medical News Today, an irregular period is when your cycle significantly varies each month. Another term for this phenomenon is oligomenorrhea. A woman can determine how long her menstrual cycle is by counting from the first day of her last period to the first day of the next period.
21 to 35 days is what's considered to be the normal timeframe for starting your next period. If your periods fall outside of that range, they're considered irregular. Most women should expect to have their periods every 28 days, but that's a rough average.
Some examples of common menstrual cycle problems include:
- Periods that happen less than 21 or more than 35 days apart
- Missing more than three menstrual cycles in a row
- Periods that last more than seven days
- A period flow that's much lighter or heavier than normal
- Periods that include cramping, nausea, pain, and vomiting
- Spotting or bleeding that happens after menopause, between periods, or after sexual intercourse
For example, if one menstrual cycle is 24 days and the following one is 32 days, that's considered an irregular cycle. If your cycle is usually between 24-32 days and fluctuates by a couple of days, that does not cause concern.
What Causes Irregular Periods?
There are many causes of irregular periods, both in and out of our control. The causes range from serious medical conditions to stress.
During adolescence, our bodies undergo a lot of different changes. It can take a few years for the hormones in charge of regulating our periods to stick to a reliable pattern. It's common for women to have irregular periods during this time of their lives.
Irregular periods can also happen while breastfeeding and after childbirth. It takes a while for the hormones to get back to normal after giving birth.
Frequent and exclusive breastfeeding can also suppress ovulation. This results in a woman's periods stopping. According to Planned Parenthood, this is called lactational amenorrhea.
During perimenopause, a woman's periods can also become irregular. Perimenopause is the first phase of menopause and a woman's hormone levels start to fall. Her periods will start to get farther apart until they stop entirely.
Starting and Stopping Birth Control
Hormonal birth control functions by stopping a woman's ovulation. A woman won't have a true period while they're on birth control. Some women don't even have periods at all.
When a woman first starts the patch, implant, hormonal intrauterine device (IUD), or pill, they might encounter irregular bleeding at first. Additionally, when they stop using birth control, they might experience the same sensation as well. It takes a bit of time for a woman's hormonal cycle to start up again.
A woman can expect to have a withdrawal bleed around two to four weeks after she stops taking birth control. It might take up to three months for the menstrual cycle to get back into a normal pattern. If you had irregular periods before going on birth control, you might experience them after you go off.
Endometriosis is a health condition when endometrial cells, that usually line the inside of the uterus, grow in other areas of the body. These cells thicken and shed with a woman's menstrual cycle. When these cells grow in abnormal places it can cause significant pain for a woman.
Other side effects of endometriosis include:
- Passing large clots
- Heavy periods
- Spotting between periods
- Infertility problems
A healthcare provider can help diagnose endometriosis, but it can be difficult to accurately do so without undergoing laparoscopic surgery.
For additional reading check out Top 12 Endometriosis Questions Answered.
Having a high level of stress can also result in irregular periods. When our body is experiencing a lot of stress, it releases stress hormones. These hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, can mess with the hormones that regulate our menstruation.
With short-term problems, stress is a way to help people respond to and manage threatening situations. Chronic stress is harmful to a person's physical and mental health. If you're experiencing a lot of stress, don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
A common side effect of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is irregular periods. PCOS is when cysts grow inside of the ovaries.
Women who have this health condition sometimes have higher levels of androgens. Androgens can stop ovulation, causing irregular periods.
People who suffer from PCOS might have heavy bleeding or skip periods. Additional side effects include:
- Oily skin and acne
- Excess body or facial hair
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
If you're experiencing any of the above symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider immediately.
For more in-depth information read What Are The 4 Types of PCOS? Signs, Symptoms, and Support.
Fibroids are small growths that develop in the uterus's wall. Most of them are noncancerous. They can be as small as an apple seed or as large as a grapefruit.
A woman who has fibroids might have periods that are heavy and painful enough to result in anemia. They might also experience:
- Pain in their low back
- Pelvic pressure or pain
- Pain during intercourse
- Leg pain
Some women might only experience irregular periods and none of the side effects above. Your doctor might schedule an ultrasound to look for uterine fibroids. If they're large enough, they might recommend surgery.
Female dancers, athletes, or others who are training a lot might encounter irregular periods. Exercising excessively might interfere with the hormones that regular our menstruation. Additionally, if a lot of exercise is combined with a very restrictive diet, it might cause the "female athlete triad."
The female athlete triad includes:
- Changes in menstruation
- Disordered eating
- Osteoporosis, or low bone density
Your healthcare provider will determine whether or not excessive exercising is the cause of irregular periods. Making adjustments to your diet or exercise routine might help regular your cycle.
3 Signs of Irregular Menstruation
While a woman can experience a variety of PMS symptoms during her cycle, it's important to know what's considered normal and what's abnormal. Let's discuss some irregular menstrual cycle symptoms.
1. Severe Cramps
Many women experience cramping during PMS and their periods. However, you shouldn't ignore severe period pain. Severe cramping might be caused by a health condition, like endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
2. Extended or Too-Heavy Bleeding
Bleeding that soaks through a pad or tampon with an hour for multiple hours in a row is considered irregular. It's also irregular if it includes clots that are bigger than a quarter. Periods that last longer than seven days are also considered abnormal.
Excessive bleeding is a cause for concern. They could be a sign of polyps or fibroids.
3. Light Bleeding
Not bleeding at all or very little is considered a sign of an irregular period. Absent or light bleeding might be caused by a person being very overweight or very underweight.
Speak to your healthcare professional if you're experiencing too light bleeding. Losing or gaining weight, depending upon your physique, might be enough to make your menstrual cycle more regular. A steady and slow weight change is a healthy way to achieve that.
How Can I Stop Irregular Periods?
Some women find relief from irregular periods by going on birth control. Treating an underlying health condition might help as well. Unfortunately, there are some menstrual cycle irregularities that are difficult to prevent.
You should make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Your periods start getting erratic out of nowhere
- Your period stops for over 90 days and you're not pregnant
- Your period lasts longer than seven days
- You bleed or spot between periods
- You start experiencing severe pain during your menstrual cycle
- You start to feel sick or get a fever after using tampons
- Your flow becomes more heavy than normal and you quickly soak through pads or tampons
Your healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms and help you find a path forward.
Learn More About What Is Considered an Irregular Cycle
It's difficult to know what is considered an irregular cycle. Knowing the signs of irregular menstruation is important. If you ever have any concerns or questions, make an appointment with your healthcare provider immediately.
For additional informationread Menstrual Cycle Facts: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Periods.
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