Why does my period smell? & 26 other questions about periods.

May 27, 2020

Never had your period before? Questions 1- 6 cover some of the basics.

Looking for LGBTQIA+ specific questions? See questions 22-23.

1. What is a period?

Female reproductive organs with red blood symbols dripping

A period is the release of blood from the uterus through the vagina. Periods are just one part of what’s called a menstrual cycle, which is the pattern the body follows to shed an old lining of blood in the uterus and create a new one. Usually menstrual cycles take between three to six weeks.

2. I’ve heard people call periods ‘Aunt Flo’. What’s up with that?

Illustration of some common period Euphemisms such as code red, the bug red bus, aunt flo etc

Image: Period euphemisms by Hazel Mead.

You might have heard periods called by some pretty creative names.

Ever heard of Aunt Flo, shark week, T.O.M (time of the month), red sea rising, moon day, on the rag, code red, or that monthly visitor?

Yeah, they were talking about their period.

We love when people can be out loud and proud about their periods, but we also know that sometimes you just aren’t ready to shout I’M MENSTRUATING from the rooftops like we are. If you can, try choosing language that doesn’t make periods sound scary or bad- because they aren’t!

Whatever makes you feel comfortable with your period- we support you.

3. What is a normal age to get my first period?

Your first period usually happens during puberty, between the ages of 10 to 16. Before you get your first period you might notice your breast tissue growing or a vaginal discharge (a sticky fluid) up to 6 to 12 months beforehand. It’s important not to compare yourself to your friends- everyone’s body is different and will develop in their own time.

  1. How can I prepare for my first period?

There’s lots of things you can do before your first period to feel prepared and ready.

  1. Prepare some sanitary products:

Before you get your first period, you might like to have different sanitary products ready.

Sanitary products are items that you can use to hold period blood. You can buy them in grocery stores, petrol stations, chemists, you name it – and some you may find online. If you need a little help navigating the different products, it’s totally cool to ask someone you trust to help you find what you need.

Try out a few different forms e.g. pads, tampons, menstrual cups and period pants and get a few different sizes, thicknesses and/or shapes. You might also like to wear comfy and dark underwear. Having a few spare pairs on hand might be useful – in case you have any leaks- and can help out a mate in their time of need 😉

  1. Start a conversation about it:

Periods happen to almost half the people in the world and are a normal part of life. Talk to your family and friends about how you feel about periods. Ask questions about periods and seek knowledge; the more you know, the more confident you can feel about your body and understand the changes you’re experiencing.

4. How do I know what my blood flow will be like?

Everyone’s first period flow is different. The first time you get your period it might only look like spots of red or brown blood. Usually the first period is ‘light’ (not that much blood), but sometimes you can get ‘heavy’ ones too (more blood). You’re cycle can take up to two years to become more predictable. Your first period may be different to future periods.

When you first start your period you may want to try changing your sanitary product of choice every couple of hours until you get used to how it will feel when you need to change it.

5. What colour should my period blood be? 

Period blood looks similar to blood that comes from other parts of your body. Blood is bright red, however when it is exposed to air it oxidises and becomes darker. Period blood can be any colour between red to brown. It is not unhealthy to notice brown blood. However, if you’re concerned you can always talk to your doctor about it.

6. Why is my period lumpy? 

A period involves the shedding of the lining of the uterus, which means sometimes it can come off in thicker amounts or clump together. This is known as clotting and can be pretty normal on the heaviest days of your period. Some people get clotting more than others- everyone is different. If it is larger than a 20c coin, your period seems a lot heavier than normal, or you are worried, then please talk to your doctor about it.

7. What is an irregular period, and what causes it?

An irregular period is whatever is unusual for your cycle. This might look like:

  • not bleeding for a whole month
  • bleeding for longer than your usual 8 days
  • spotting periodically throughout the month.

Having an irregular period can be caused by lots of things like stress, change of routine, weight gain or loss, new medication, contraception use or pregnancy. The best thing to do is talk to your doctor if you are concerned.

8. Uh oh! I got blood on my stuff. How do I get it off?

Cartoon person from the waist down wearing white shorts and a big red blood stain spreading around the crotch area

Don’t stress 🙂 This can happen even with the most experienced folk. If you do happen to get blood on your clothes/ furniture/ bedding it can be removed using salt and cold water. Some stain removers work pretty well too. If you’re in public when it happens you can tie a jumper around the stain until you are able to wash it.

9. What sanitary product should I use?

It’s completely up to you which product you’d like to use. Test out as many as you need until you find the ones that suit you: everyone’s bodies and preferences are different!

Here are some common options you can explore:

  • Menstrual Cups: a reusable silicone cup which is inserted and washed afterwards.
  • Tampons- a non-reusable cotton product which is inserted and then disposed of.
  • Pads- a non-reusable liner which you stick to your underwear.
  • Period underwear- reusable absorbent underwear.

Different products have different chemicals in them- so if you have sensitive skin it’s good to check what the sanitary items are made from.

10. My friends are using a menstrual cup. What even is that?

You might have also heard them called by their brand name e.g. Moon cup, Diva cup, Lunette etc.

Menstrual cups are typically made from soft silicone (it’s pretty important to check that it’s medical grade silicone!). They are shaped like a tiny tea cup without the handle.

Pink translucent estrual cup held up in someone's hand

A menstrual cup is inserted into the vagina to catch the blood flow. You empty the blood out as needed throughout the day. After cleaning, the menstrual cup is then reusable. When you buy a reputable brand, they will have instructions to help you use it for the first time.

11. I’m worried tampons will hurt, but I do want to use one. Help!

Ok so first things first: what is a tampon? It’s usually a small lipstick shaped product made from cotton that is inserted into the vagina.

When you have your period, the blood being shed acts as a lubricant and helps the tampon slide in. If you’ve never used a tampon before, maybe try it out on one of your heavier period days or use a water-based lubricant on the tip. It’s also a good idea to be nice and relaxed before you give it a go – a good excuse for a relaxing bath or shower.

If at first you don’t succeed, that’s ok. Try again another time when you’re ready.

12. Do I lose my virginity when using a tampon?

The concept of a virginity usually refers to the first time you begin experimenting with sexual activity. Inserting a tampon is typically not a sexual activity. You get to define what virginity means for you.

13. Can I swim while I’m on my period? 

Yes, you can!

There are plenty of options to help you retain blood while you swim. You might like to use a menstrual cup or tampon. Alternatively, since you don’t bleed whilst submerged underwater, you could choose not to use any sanitary item while you swim. When you get out of the water, if you want to catch the blood flow, resume using sanitary products.

You can also play water polo, volleyball, basketball, do triathlons…. But we get ahead of ourselves!

14. Why does my period smell?

It is entirely normal for periods to have a smell to them. You may notice that your period smells different to your typical vaginal discharge. This is due to the blood and tissues, as well as some bacteria, shedding out of the vagina.

Some odour is normal, but a particularly strong smell may mean your sanitary product needs to be changed more frequently. However, if you are particularly concerned about the smell of your period, consider visiting a health professional.

15. Why is my period so heavy? 

A heavy period means lots of blood. The average period is around 40-120ml of blood (that’s roughly half a cup or 24 teaspoons of liquid over the course of the days you bleed). Lots of people experience heavier bleeding on the first day and lighter bleeding on the last days. Some might be heavier in the middle.

Some reasons for heavier than usual bleeding can include: medication changes, contraception use, hormone problems, or medical conditions. Hormonal variations like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome can be associated with more heavy and painful periods. If you’re experiencing bleeding for more than 7 days or you need to change your sanitary product every 1-2 hours, we advise that you speak to a doctor.

16. How do I know if my period cramps are normal? 

It isn’t unusual to experience some cramping during your period because the uterus is squeezing tightly to shed the lining of blood. Typically, pain can be relieved using heat packs, massages, light physical exercise, having a bath, chocolate and pain medication. If you find that the pain continues and prohibits you significantly from doing your day to day activities, then it is advisable that you speak to a doctor to look at pain management options.

17. What is PMS?  

PMS stands for pre-menstrual syndrome. Some people experience big emotions just before or during their period. This is because the hormones released during the menstrual cycle can affect how you experience the world.

PMS can make you feel more emotionally sensitive, meaning that you might get irritated, sad, angry or overwhelmed more easily. PMS might also cause physical changes to the body such as acne and bloating. Symptoms usually go away after the first few days of a period. If you find your symptoms continue to persist and mean you can’t carry on with your daily activities, then talk to a doctor.

18. If I want to track my cycle, do I start counting on the first or last day of my period? 

The key is being consistent, so ideally start the first day you notice bleeding. You might find it helpful to make a note of every day you bleed, the flow amount, mood changes and experiences of pain. Sometimes periods take a while to regulate, so it’s best to track your period over multiple months to have a good understanding of your cycle. You can make notes in your diary or even download an app on your phone to assist you.

19. Is period sex gross?

Having sex while on your period can be just as much fun as when you don’t have it!

In fact, some people say that having their period makes it that little bit better (Did you know that orgasms can help with cramps?!). Also, having low levels of progesterone- which signals the uterus to shed- can sometimes mean you have a higher sex drive 😉

Tips on making period sex easier:

You might want to lay down a dark towel and use condoms or dental dams if you don’t want to get blood on you or your partner(s). You can also buy a sterile, single-use sponge that prevents blood coming out of the vagina during sex (NOT to be confused with sea sponges or kitchen sponges; these are specially designed to be body-safe). There’s always plenty of other body parts that aren’t bleeding but are just as sexy…

Not sure if you’re partner/s would be into it? Talk to them about it! Everyone has their own preferences but quite often people just don’t care if you’re bleeding or not. For some people, the blood isn’t even noticeable during sex.

You get to choose if you want to have sex on your period or not.

20. Can I get pregnant on my period?

If you have unprotected sex, you can get pregnant even when you have your period.

Quick run-down: Pregnancy occurs when sperm fertilises an egg, and when your body releases the egg it’s called ovulating.

Even if you are experiencing bleeding, if you are ovulating at the time of sex or soon after, any sperm that enters your body can fertilise the egg.

Sperm can last within the female reproductive system for a few days, so while it is less likely (because that nice layer of soft blood for the egg to rest in is shedding) it is still very much possible!