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Your Most Embarrassing Period Questions: Answered!

Do you remember when you first got your period? We certainly do.  

No matter how well your mom or those illustrated health books prepared you, back then, periods were a weird and scary phenomenon. Of course, at this point in our lives, we’re a little more used to the whole idea. But even though by now some of us have had our periods for almost 10 years (hard to imagine it’s been that long), that time of the month can still leave us with lots of questions. It’s often hard to know what’s normal (and what’s not)…and frankly, these aren’t questions that you feel comfortable casually bringing up while out for drinks with friends.   

Well, don’t worry. Her Campus is here to help! We asked college women across the country for their weirdest, most embarrassing questions about their periods so that we could find the answers. Remember, if you have any serious concerns about your menstrual cycle, only your doctor can give you the answers you need. But in the meantime, we did some research and talked to Lisa Jackson-Moore, M.D., an OBGYN working in North Carolina.   
 

Can you really get Toxic Shock Syndrome from leaving a tampon in too long? 

We’ve all read the warning signs on the back of every box of tampons, but Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially deadly bacterial infection, can seem more like a myth than a real concern.  

Approximately one-half of TSS cases occur in women and girls during their menstruation, and this menstrual TSS is associated with tampon use. According to MayoClinic.com, scientists are still unsure about how tampons cause TSS – although some believe tampons can scratch the surface of the uterus, making it easier for bacteria to enter the bloodstream.   

But if you wear tampons regularly, are you at a high risk? “It’s possible, but it’s pretty rare,” says Jackson-Moore. Even if you do accidentally leave a tampon in for longer than eight hours, that doesn’t mean you’ll get TSS. It’s a good idea to be aware of the major symptoms (sudden fever, vomiting, and diarrhea are big ones), but if you’re changing your tampons regularly, there’s no need to be concerned.  


I’m on the pill and my period is abnormal—should I be worried? 

“Not necessarily,” says Jackson-Moore. “If you’re having breakthrough bleeding, make sure that you’re not skipping any pills.” But what if you’re taking your pills exactly as you should? There is a possibility that something could be wrong—irregular bleeding could be a sign of pregnancy, an STI (particularly Chlamydia) or other infections—so if you think any of those are likely, you might want to check with your doctor. If that’s not the case, you might just be on a pill that doesn’t mesh well with your body. “Sometimes the first pill you try isn’t necessarily going to work,” says Jackson-Moore. “Sometimes you have to experiment with different kinds of pills to find the pill that works best for you.”  Make an appointment with your gyno to talk about switching pills if it’s really bothering you.

Should I be concerned about blood clots?  

If you have a heavy flow, a small blood clot from time to time isn’t necessarily a problem—when you’re bleeding heavily, anticoagulants (which break down the lining of the uterus) don’t have time to work fully before the blood leaves your body, causing clots. But with that in mind, Jackson-Moore says that if you are passing good-sized blood clots (think larger than a quarter), then you might want to check with your doctor. “The fact that you’re forming blood clots means that you’re bleeding heavier than you should,” she says.  

Is it safe/weird to have sex during your period? 

When it comes to sex during your period, many people have strong opinions—and many people also have misconceptions. “When we first started dating, my ex-boyfriend thought that sex during my period would hurt me,” says Kaitlyn, a junior at the University of Connecticut. But is it harmful? Not really. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong or dangerous about sex during your period—although it is extra important to make sure to use a condom. “There could be a slightly increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection when intercourse occurs during the cycle,” says Jackson-Moore. “There also could be a slightly higher risk of developing yeast and bacterial infections, too.”  

In fact, some women even say their elevated hormones make sex more enjoyable during that time of the month. So if you’ve been wanting to give it a try, go for it – but be sure to use proper protection. (And be warned, it can be messy—try placing an old towel or sheet over the bed beforehand to avoid ruining your sheets.)  

I throw up every time I have my period; should I be concerned? 

No two periods are alike. You might be the girl who occasionally notices some slight cramping, or you might be the girl who spends those first few miserable days curled up in bed with a heating pad. Neither of these necessarily means there’s something wrong with you. “There are some women who really do suffer from PMS, and nausea and vomiting can be a sign of that,” says Jackson-Moore. But if you do experience really strong PMS symptoms that are interfering with your life, your gynecologist can talk to you about ways to manage them. 
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Is it bad to sleep with a tampon in?  

According to the Tampax website, “You should never wear a tampon for more than eight hours to reduce the risk of TSS during your menstruation.” So what about wearing one overnight? According to Jackson-Moore, the risk is pretty negligible. “If you’re just sleeping for eight hours, that’s reasonable,” she says. But if you do plan on sleeping for much longer (for example, if you’re crashing at 7pm the night after pulling an all-nighter), you can be extra-safe and set an alarm to get up and change your tampon after eight hours.  

Will a significant change in diet affect my period? 

Significant changes in diet, exercise, and stress all have the potential to alter your cycle. But if your cycle is significantly affected by a change in diet, it could be a signal that something about your change in routine is unhealthy. “For the most part, if you are losing weight in a healthy fashion, it really shouldn’t affect your cycle,” says Jackson-Moore.  

My period is consistently irregular—my gyno says I shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s frustrating to deal with. What options do I have to regulate it?  

If you want to regulate your cycle without hormonal medication, you first have to know what’s causing the irregularity. While irregularity can be caused by a myriad of factors (including STDs, pregnancy and eating disorders), the most likely causes are stress, a crazy diet, or exercise. Try adopting a consistent (and healthy) diet and exercise plan and reducing your stress levels before turning to other options. If these don’t do the trick, Jackson-Moore says you can talk to your gynecologist about possible medical solutions such as Lysteda, a non-hormonal medication to treat a heavy flow. “Taking non-steroidals like ibuprofen during the cycle does lessen the flow,” says Jackson-Moore.  

I don’t want to use tampons, but pads are uncomfortable sometimes and can be difficult to wear in all situations. What are my other options? 

Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of options out there for dealing with your period. If pads irritate your skin and tampons just aren’t your thing, a menstrual cup (such as the Diva Cup or the Mooncup) could be a better option. A menstrual cup is a reusable, bell-shaped cup that you manually insert into your vagina to collect menstrual blood (instead of absorbing it like a pad or a tampon). They come in both rubber and latex-free options, and while they’re less common than pads or tampons, many women find them to be a perfect solution. “I have some patients who use it, and they love it,” says Jackson-Moore.  

How heavy of a flow is too heavy?  

This can be a tricky question to answer. “A lot of times we overestimate and underestimate the amount of bleeding we have,” says Jackson-Moore. But if you’re not sure if your flow is something to be concerned about or just heavy, there are a few signs to look for. “If you’re passing blood clots that are very good size, or if you’re bleeding longer than seven days, that is probably a tip-off that you’re bleeding too heavily,” says Jackson-Moore.  

Sources:

Lisa Jackson-Moore, M.D., an OBGYN working in North Carolina
http://women.webmd.com/menstrual-blood-problems-clots-color-and-thickness
http://www.tampax.co.uk/toxic-shock-syndrome.php
http://www.epigee.org/menstruation/irregularperiods.html
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/toxic-shock-syndrome/DS00221
http://www.lysteda.com/
http://www.divacup.com/

Laura is a senior (class of 2011) at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Journalism and French. She spent two years writing for her campus newspaper and interned at USA Weekend Magazine in D.C. this summer. She is also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and recently spent a semester studying abroad in the south of France. Besides reading and writing, she loves being outdoors (particularly hiking and backpacking, ideally in the N.C. mountains), traveling, coffee, and attempting to play the guitar and/or ukulele. Her major life goals include learning to salsa dance and swimming with manatees. Though the thought of entering the real world still terrifies her a little bit, she plans to pursue a career in the magazine or publishing industries.
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