What are irregular periods?

Irregular periods can signal an underlying medical condition.
Irregular periods can signal an underlying medical condition.

Typically, a woman’s menstruation (also called a period) occurs roughly every 28 days — or somewhere between 21 and 35 days. It usually lasts anywhere between four and seven days. For most women, their menstrual flow fluctuates throughout their period, but the pattern is mostly the same from month to month.

However, many women experience irregular periods, which can be unpredictable. For example, an irregular period might mean having a period that occurs more frequently than every 21 days or having a period that occurs less frequently than every 35 days — both of which are outside the normal range for a menstrual cycle.

An irregular period might mean missing multiple periods in a row or missing your period indefinitely. Women with irregular periods also sometimes experience drastic or unpredictable fluctuations in their flow.

Irregular periods often occur with many other symptoms. Side effects of irregular periods might include:

If you experience irregular periods or any of their side effects, it is important to see your doctor.

Signs of irregular periods

Keeping careful track of your period is an important part of recognizing the signs and symptoms of irregular periods. Many women lose track of the number of days their period usually lasts or when their last menstruation was — making it easy to miss clear signs of an irregular period.

When tracking your menstrual cycle, make sure to make a note of the following details:

When your period begins and ends

Keeping track of when your period begins and ends each month can give you valuable insight into your menstrual cycle. You will be able to track the length of your period, whether or not the length of your menstrual cycle is consistent, and whether you miss any periods.

The amount of flow

It is important to make a note of how much bleeding you experience during your period — both throughout the day and over the week. A typical period follows the same flow pattern most months. Major fluctuations in flow from day to day or throughout the day can signal an underlying medical condition.

It is also important to notice if your period is excessively heavy or light. Dramatically heavy or light periods often occur with other symptoms.

Presence of clots

Pay attention to any clots you pass during your period. Make a note of their size and appearance so that you can discuss them with your doctor.

Spotting

Spotting is a common sign of irregular periods. Spotting is a small amount of bleeding that occurs between menstruation. It may feel like a typical period, but spotting is usually only a few drops or a light flow of blood.

Cramps or pain

Keep a record of any cramps or pain you experience during or near your period. A log of physical discomfort is an important resource when you meet with your doctor.

Headaches or other symptoms

Irregular periods often go hand-in-hand with other uncomfortable symptoms, such as headaches. Keeping track of specific symptoms may help your doctor determine underlying causes.

Any drastic changes in your menstrual cycle

As you keep track of your periods, make a note of any drastic changes. Consult with your doctor if you experience any sudden changes in your period.

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Causes of irregular periods

There are several potential causes of irregular periods. These include:

Hormonal imbalance

A hormonal imbalance is a common contributor to irregular periods. Hormones help regulate your reproductive system. An excess amount or lack of certain hormones could be disrupting your menstrual cycle, as well as causing heavy bleeding and other symptoms.

Uterine fibroids

Fibroids are benign growths of muscle cells that occur within the uterus. While fibroids are noncancerous, they can affect the size and shape of your uterus and cervix. Depending on where they are developing, how many there are, and how large they have grown, fibroids can have a significant influence on the regularity of your menstrual cycle. 

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition in which cells from the uterus grow outside the uterine walls. Endometriosis can cause significant pain and discomfort and affect the consistency of your period.

Stress

Research shows that stress and other risk factors — such as your physical activity level, weight, and age — can have a major impact on your period.

Diagnosing irregular periods

To diagnose irregular periods and determine their underlying cause, your doctor will ask you about your last period and any symptoms you are experiencing. After reviewing your medical history and any record you have kept of your menstrual cycle, your doctor may run additional tests to pinpoint the cause.

These tests might include:

Treatments for irregular periods

Because irregular periods can be triggered by a range of underlying causes, there are several treatment options your doctor might recommend. Depending on your symptoms, these treatments might include:

Research shows that, with treatment or appropriate lifestyle changes, women can often regain regularity of their periods.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/6/2021
References
BMC Women's Health: "Factors associated with menstrual cycle irregularity and menopause."

Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Irregular menstrual cycles in a young woman."

Cleveland Clinic: "Abnormal Menstruation (Periods.)"

Harvard Health: "When You Visit Your Doctor - Irregular Menstrual Periods."

Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: "To Evaluate the Effect of Perceived Stress on Menstrual Function."

Medicine: "Length of Menstrual Cycle and Risk of Endometriosis: A Meta-Analysis of 11 Case–Control Studies."

Penn Medicine: "Irregular Periods: Why Is My Period Late?"