Your First Period (Menarche)

A female’s first period, known as menarche, occurs during a transitional part of her life. Menarche occurs during puberty, when a female’s body and emotions are continually changing. Of all the changes that take place during puberty, menarche is usually the most feared. Fortunately, most of that fear comes from the mystery of the menstrual cycle. This article is here to expel any of that fear and prepare you for this pivotal change in your body. Rest assured, a female’s menstrual cycle is nothing to be worried about: it is simply nature’s way of saying that your body is healthy and capable of reproduction. Knowing the facts about your period can help decrease any pre-period anxiety that you may be experiencing.1

What Should I Expect?

Your first period is often different from your latter menstrual cycles. Menarche is usually shorter and lighter than consecutive periods. You may also have Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) symptoms prior to or during your period–these symptoms are discussed later in the article. It is also possible that you will not experience these symptoms until latter periods, if at all. These symptoms can also vary from period to period, with each month being different from last. 

During the year after menarche, your body is taking time to adjust to the hormones which stimulate this process, so periods are usually more irregular during this “trial period.” Periods may be irregular at first and cause you to miss a month but after approximately a year your body’s periods will all be about the same. Just as PMS symptoms and period lengths can vary, so can your blood flow and color. Some days your flow can be lighter, while other days it may be quite heavy. Flow can also fluctuate period to period, so some months can be lighter and others may be heavier. Overall, you only lose about one to six tablespoons of blood and tissue (endometrial lining) each month. That tissue can make your blood look clumpy so do not worry if your period blood appears that way! Blood and tissue can also appear red, brown, or pink depending on the amount of oxygen that it has been exposed to. Try to be patient as your body adjusts to this new process; just as you are getting accustomed to your period, so is your body.1

When Will I Get My Period?

Menarche is a unique and highly personal experience for every female. On average, most females get their first period around the age of thirteen; However, menarche can occur anywhere from the ages of nine to sixteen. Menarche usually begins two years after breast budding–where the nipple becomes elevated, but the rest of the breast remains undeveloped. Between six months to a year before menarche, you may experience white vaginal discharge that turns yellow upon contact with underwear. This is a natural process; however, if the discharge is so heavy that panty liners are needed or it produces a fishy smell, you should contact a doctor as this may be a sign of a possible yeast infection.2 More immediate markers of puberty, and the onset of menarche, include first signs of armpit hair and the development of your breasts. These changes in your body usually occur around the same time, indicating that your period is around three to six months away. It is important to remember, though, that all females develop at different rates and that growth patterns depend on various hormone-related factors.3

Pre-pubescent and pubescent development occur at different rates and begin at different ages–steps are not always in order either. The estimates we provide are simply a rough guide based on what the average female experiences, so remember that being an “early bloomer” or “late bloomer” in comparison to one’s friends is perfectly natural and normal. Your race also affects these averages: girls of African descent mature around a year earlier than girls of European descent. Doctors do advise, however, that if a female reaches the age of fifteen and has not yet gotten her first period, she should seek the advice of a trained medical professional, such as an obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN).3

What is Going on Inside?

During the menstrual cycle, many different processes are going on inside a female’s body. These processes all surround the maturation and preparation of a female’s eggs for fertilization. When she is born, a female has 450,000 eggs, more than enough for her body to use for her entire life. Those eggs are stored in the female’s ovaries, each in their own sac, called a follicle. Having a period is not the act of producing a new egg, but rather the maturation of an egg for potential fertilization. Several hormones initiate this process. The brain and pituitary glands communicate with the ovaries through the body’s hormones sending the message that an egg should be released for possible implantation. This process occurs roughly every 28 days. The hormones estrogen, progesterone, and Leutenizing Hormone (LH) play a major part in monthly menstruation. About once every twenty-eight days, the female body prepares the uterus in anticipation of a fertilized egg. Estrogen, a hormone that begins increasing in the female body at the start of puberty, causes the inner uterine lining (the endometrium) to begin building up tissue in preparation for implantation. Once the body attains a certain level of estrogen, a surge of LH triggers the most mature follicles to burst and release their egg in a process called ovulation. Progesterone, which also increases in the body during puberty, thickens the endometrial tissue in preparation for a potential pregnancy that might follow ovulation. Once the egg (ovum) reaches the uterus, it may or may not be fertilized by sperm. If the ovum is fertilized (thus becoming a zygote), the egg implants itself inside the uterine wall, interrupting the menstrual cycle, and pregnancy begins. However, if the egg is not fertilized due to the lack of sperm in the female reproductive track, the endometrial wall will begin to shed. This shedding of blood and built-up uterine tissue through the vaginal canal is what females experience as menstruation.4

What Else Should I Expect? 

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is a series of changes that take place in a female’s body before and during the menstrual cycle. PMS can be both emotionally and physically draining. This is due to the fluctuations of hormones around the time of ovulation. These fluctuations are linked to the various symptoms females experience: abdominal cramping, bloating, fatigue, body aches, mood swings, breast tenderness, headaches, food cravings, etc. While the type and severity of symptoms is unique to each person, females often have to deal with the stress of multiple symptoms at once; furthermore, many females experiencing PMS also have to confront the stigma that labels them as irrational when dealing with PMS. However, PMS is an entirely hormonal process which the female cannot control so she should not feel guilty for the symptoms she is experiencing.5

Although the name suggests that the symptoms occur before the onset of one’s period, they can also occur during menstruation. Similar to the age at which one experiences menarche, the symptoms one experiences will vary among females. Some females hardly encounter symptoms of PMS, while others have always experiences a menstrual period with the side effects of PMS. PMS can be very distressing and painful for many females and should be treated with a degree of sensitivity and care.4,5  

What Can I Do to Combat PMS?

Fortunately for those who face PMS, there are a number of methods to fight these symptoms. The most popular pain-relievers are over-the-counter pills, including Midol, Pamprin, Tesco (UK), generic Ibuprofen, and others. Most of these remedies contain amphetamine and caffeine, which have been proven to help relieve various PMS symptoms like back aches, abdominal cramps, headaches, bloating, etc. This is because PMS causes a spike in hormone levels and thus responsiveness to insulin, signifying low blood sugar and the infamous need for sugars.4

Other females prefer the more natural methods of pain relief. This could be through lifestyle or dietary choices: exercising, drinking less alcohol and caffeine, eating less salt, a warm bath, or even drinking supplements such as chaste tree extracts have been found to help some females. Some females have also found that masturbation can decrease menstrual cramping. It is thought that the action of masturbation works the muscles, and orgasm allows those same muscles to fully relax, relieving the cramping sensation. Once you understand how PMS is affecting your body, you can find what methods works best for you.5

For those who prefer a quicker acting option to combat menstrual cramps, there are portable heat wraps available, such as Thermacare. These wraps are versatile: you can use them for back or menstrual cramping, at home or on the go. These wraps offer discrete pain relief for up to eight hours. 

Some females also experience a more severe type of PMS, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). Similar to PMS, PMDD follows a cyclic pattern beginning after ovulation and ending soon after menstruation starts. These females may experience more severe mood effects, especially those mimicking severe depression. Females who have PMDD often experience lack of energy, disinterest in daily life, anxiety, effects of seasonal affective disorder, and much more. Although the causes for PMDD are not yet known, it is thought that a fluctuation of hormones may trigger the onset of symptoms.5

If you or someone you know is having trouble finding a solution to PMS or PMDD, we recommend visiting a medical professional. A doctor might recommend a birth control pill. In addition to offering protection against pregnancy, the birth control pill can also provide additional support for females: hormonal medication can affect a female’s hormone levels and lead to an improvement in PMS or PMDD.5 The effects of different pills vary greatly and should be discussed in detail. Regardless of whether you prefer a more natural or medical solution, a doctor will be able to help you assess what your specific body goes through during its cycle and how you can best combat undesirable symptoms.

What Are My Feminine Product Options?

One of the most confusing parts of getting your period for the first time will probably be deciding which feminine product(s) is right for you. There are dozens of options and a multitude of brands available. How are you supposed to choose? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question or one magic product that will meet all of your menstrual needs. You may have to try out a few products until you find the one that works for you. However, we hope to help ease your decision by describing the most popular products in use today, along with some pros and cons of each. We advise learning how to apply and use each product before your first period to ease any anxiety you may have about how each of these products works.

Pads: Pads are absorbent rectangular products, usually made of cotton, which have a layer of adhesive on the bottom to help stick to one’s underwear. They can be especially helpful for a female getting her first period because they are easy to use. Pads come in a range of different absorbencies: light, regular, and super, labels that correlate with the strength of the blood flow. They can come with “wings” which extend over the edge of the underwear, sticking below the crotch area, to minimize leakage and the displacement of the pad. This feature is especially helpful for females playing sports or when wearing a pad at night. Pads are typically worn overnight, rather than tampons, to avoid Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a bacterial inection that may occur when a tampon remains inside the vagina for too long. While TSS is not common, frequently changing your tampon will help you avoid this syndrome.6 Pads also come in scented and non-scented options. Although the scented pad may seem like a better choice, it is never good to put any type of perfume product near your vaginal opening. This may lead to negative health effects, such as severe yeast infections, so it should be avoided.7

Panty Liners: Panty liners are very thin, short pads that do not come with “wings.” These are not meant to be used alone, but they can be especially helpful when used in combination with tampons, menstrual cups, or even as a precaution a few days before you think your period will begin. These can be used alone if your period is light enough, but typically a pad will be sturdier and give you more protection and coverage.6

Pros of Pads Cons of Pads
Pads are easy to use, and to identify when they should be changed Pads are not waterproof and should not be worn while swimming
Pads are consistent with some religion’s belief in zero “penetration” before marriage (the insertion of tampons into the vagina may be seen as vaginal penetration) Pads can be uncomfortable and can easily slide out of place during heavy exercise
Pads, compared with tampons, are associated with decreased chances of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) Pads may shift out of place, which may lead to menstrual stains on underwear and/or clothing
Pads are a great option for those with Vaginismus or for those whose hymen will not allow for tampon insertion  

 

Tampons: Tampons are absorbent cotton cylinders that are inserted into the vaginal opening to absorb menstrual flow. Similar to pads, there are multiple absorbencies: light, regular, super, and super plus. There are also different types of applicators: plastic or cardboard. Cardboard applicators today are also usually biodegradable. Tampons should be inserted at about a 45° angle, depending on the angle of your uterus. The muscles of the uterus hold the tampon in place–so do not worry about it getting lost! If you cannot feel the tampon once it is inserted, you are doing it right. A string is attached at the bottom for easy removal.6 Similar to pads, there are also scented and unscented tampons. Although the scented tampon may seem like a better choice, it is never good to put any type of perfume product inside your vaginal canal.7 This may lead to negative health effects and Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Toxic Shock Syndrome is a cluster of bacterial strains which cause toxins to be released into the bloodstream. These bacterial strains can flourish on tampons that have not been changed often enough (every four to eight hours). They are especially dangerous when females use heavy flow tampons during a lighter flow. Some symptoms include the following: a suddenly high fever (around 102°F), vomiting, fatigue, watery diarrhea, and muscle pain. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is possible you have TSS and should see a doctor immediately.8,9 To avoid this rare condition, ensure that you remove your tampon every 4-8 hours (or as directed by the tampon company). It is helpful to use a pad or panty liner when sleeping—this will help your flow escape your body quicker, giving you a shorter period, as well as allowing your vagina a break from the use of tampons.6

Pros of Tampons Cons of Tampons
Highly effective during sports or physical activity May cause TSS (if used incorrectly-primarily if left inside vaginal canal for extensive periods of time)
Are not waterproof but may be utilized in the water (should be changed soon after exiting the water) Not suitable for those with Vaginismus, intact hymens, etc; futhermore, may stretch or tear  the hymen.
More discrete and smaller than most products May conflict with religious ideologies: Tampons conflict with some religion’s belief in zero “penetration” before marriage (the insertion of tampons into the vagina may be seen as vaginal penetration)

 

Menstrual Cups or “Diva” Cups: Menstrual cups are cylindrical “cups” usually made from silicone or rubber. They are meant to sit comfortably within the vaginal opening and collect menstrual shedding. Noted for their reusability and surprising comfort, menstrual cups require the user to both insert and remove the cup as well as empty its contents.6

Pros of Menstrual Cup Cons of Menstrual Cup
Reusable (to an extent); Recommended use differs per cup  Difficulty of insertion
Comfortable and cheap May cause discomfort during removal
Healthy and moderately natural. Cups are tailored to females’ natural menstrual flow and thus can help to simulate natural menstruation Not suitable for females with smaller or tighter vaginas.
Can hold twelve hours of blood (but it is recommended to change more often than that)6  

 

PillBirth control pills are meant to manipulate your period, so being on the pill can help regulate a female’s menstrual cycle. The pill can work in one of two ways depending on how you choose to manipulate your period. The first option would be using the conventional birth control pill pack, which contains either 21 days of active pills and 7 days of inactive pills (during which menstruation occurs) or 24 days of active pills and 4 days of inactive pills (during which menstruation occurs). Birth control pills often offer females a better chance at predicting their cycle and, for most females, helps to reduce the duration and intensity of their menstrual flow. This is done by lowering a female’s hormone levels so that the female experiences a mass decline in flow and cramps, and regulated periods.10 The other option for using the birth control pill can be taking a brand such a Seasonale, Seasonique, or Amethyst. The first two, as their names suggest, offer only four periods a year, while the latter produces no periods. These birth control pills contain the same suppressing hormones (estrogen and progestin) as traditional combination pills, but differ in how they are administered. Traditionally, “combo pills” suppress a women’s menstrual cycle for 21 days using estrogen and progestin. These 21 days are followed by 7 days of placebo pills which lack these hormones, thus allowing a woman’s body to menstruate. However, Seasonale and Seasonique suppress a woman’s menstrual cycle for 84 consecutive days, followed by 7 days of placebo pills, during which the female has her period. Amethyst has no change in hormone levels, eliminating a female’s period altogether.11 With this method it is important to keep better track of potential pregnancies as you will not have your period as a monthly indication that you are not pregnant. If you or your partner decide to take oral contraceptives, it is important to fully understand the type of birth control you are using and the effects that birth control will have on your body. Some types of birth control can lead to weight gain and/or can alter your hormone balance, which may affect you differently than others. For these reasons, it is important to always speak with your doctor about the birth control that is best for you.

Pros of Birth Control Pills Cons of Birth Control Pills
Known for diminishing most PMS symptoms by reducing hormone levels5 May cause other health related issues (i.e., weight gain, hormone imbalance, etc.)
Reduces menstrual flow by altering hormonal balances and allowing the inner lining to disintegrate within the vagina May be expensive or difficult to get due to age restrictions; these restrictions only allow females over a certain age to purchase birth control without an adult; restrictions will differ depending on region
Helps regulate menstruation by creating a regular pattern; This helps to regulate a female’s body Can cause irregular periods and/or PMS symptoms if incorrectly administered or missed over the course of multiple days

 

Who Can I Talk to about My Period?

Having a period is a wonderful thing and should be celebrated. It should not be a topic of embarrassment or shame. We encourage you to speak to anyone you trust regarding any questions or issues with your period. Whether it is your parents, your significant other, a doctor, a school counselor, a coach, or someone else, talking with somebody about your menstrual cycle is an important part of learning about your body. 

Helpful Hints

If you happen to get your period and do not have a tampon, pad, and/or cup nearby, you can cover the crotch part of your underwear with toilet paper as a temporary pad. You can also place a sock length-wise, like a pad, in an emergency to help absorb the flow and avoid staining your underwear and/or pants. Do not feel embarrassed to ask other females around you for a pad or tampon; it is likely they have been stranded without one and will be more than willing to help you!1

There’s An App for That

The longer you have your period, the better you can get to know your body. This gives you a chance to predict when your next period will arrive, along with your typical PMS symptoms. You can stay updated on all this information more efficiently if you use an app to track that data! Apps like Clue, Period Tracker Lite, and Spot On help with this. Spot On is especially helpful when determining how different birth control methods affect your period, while also tracking your birth control usage, such as taking your pill.12 These apps all allow you to take note of when your period started, when it ended, and everything in between. You can track your mood, flow, cravings, and anything else you find relevant. The app then averages your periods, so the longer you use the app, the more accurate the app can become at estimating your next cycle. By tracking your mood and other symptoms that accompany your menstrual cycle, you can learn more about how your period affects you and better prepare yourself the next time. 

Menarche, and latter menstrual cycles, may be accompanied by anxiety and fear, but the fact that you have read this article and armed yourself with this knowledge means that you are prepared to tackle this transition! You can never be sure when your first period will arrive, but being prepared with the right information and a number of feminine products will help you through this process. Menstruation is simply your body’s way of processing during your fertile years and a way to know that you are not pregnant. Each month your body will go through this cycle, and this may be preceded by PMS. The longer you menstruate, and the more you track your period, the more equipped you will be to understand your body. Experiment with different methods, such as trying various feminine products and methods to curb PMS symptoms, and see what works best for you. Track this and your cycle on a period app so that each consecutive period gets easier. Not every period will be the same. And if you ever have any concerns, contact your doctor or OB/GYN immediately; your body will thank you! 

References

  1. Parenthood, Planned. “What Can I Expect When I Get My Period | Facts and Info.” Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Planned Parenthood.
  2. “Puberty: A Basic Guide For Young Females.” American Pregnancy.  American Pregnancy Association, Dec. 2015.
  3. Sarpolis, Karen. “First Mensturation: Average Age and Physical Signs.” ObGyn.net. UMB Media, LLC, 18 Nov. 2011. Web.
  4. “Menstural Cycles: What Really Happens in those 28 Days?!” Feminist Females’s Health Center. Cedar River Clinics, 2 Jun. 2012. Web.
  5. “Premenstrual Syndrome: Overview.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Jun. 2017.
  6. Parenthood, Planned. “How do I use tampons, pads, and menstrual cups?” Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Planned Parenthood.
  7. “Stay Yeast Free: Avoid Scented Feminine Products.” HelloLife® -Matching Your Commitment To A Healthy Lifestyle, 9 Jan. 2010.
  8. “Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).” Johns Hopkins Medicine Helath Library. Johns Hopkins Health System.
  9. “Toxic Shock Syndrome.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic.
  10. “Birth Control Pills” A Guide for Parents.” Center for Young Femaless Health. Boston Children’s Hospital, 2 Jun. 2016. 
  11. “Menstrual Suppression.” National Females’s Health Network. 29 Nov. 2016
  12. Parenthood, Planned. “Spot On.” Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Planned Parenthood. 

Last Updated: 30 October 2017.