Back to school - Everything you need to know about your first period!
Written by Steph Hazlegreaves BA @read.withsteph
First Periods: Getting to know your first flow
First experiences can be very nerving and exciting! Your first day of school, first relationship and your first period. The average person will get their first period between the ages of 11 and 14. Here, we are going to cover everything you need to know about getting your first period. It’s really not as scary as it sounds and once you get used to it, most people have a smooth run with them every month! We will guide you in what to expect when your period first starts, finding the right products to suit you, understanding PMS and we will even share our own first period stories – we are an open book here!
What are periods and why do we have them?
Periods allow us to make babies and all mammals get them, even your dog! Without them we wouldn’t be here today so try to view your period as a blessing, that gives you the ability to create life, rather than looking at them negatively. With a positive outlook, you may even enjoy your period – they do after all, give us a great excuse to pamper ourselves and eat lots of chocolate! Contrary to belief, a period doesn’t make you weak or stop you from doing the things you love. You can, of course, follow in my footsteps and stay in the bath for 2 hours relaxing... or you can run a marathon and go camping! My choice is down to pure laziness, not my period. Simply put, a period is our bodies way of telling us we didn’t get pregnant during our last cycle. They will generally last between 3 - 7 days and return every 28 – 30 days (1). Although it might seem like you are losing a lot of blood, only 3 to 5 tablespoons is actually lost! (1) Shocking I know. I was amazed by this myself as my pads and tampons fill very quickly, until I started using a menstrual cup and realised it isn't as much as it seems. (more on this later).
What to expect
According to the NHS, most menstruators start their periods when they are about 12, but they can happen as early as 8 (1). Typical signs that suggest your period might be starting is growing pubic hair and armpit hair (1) Around 2 years prior your breast will start growing (time to shop for your first bra!), which can cause them to ache, and a year before you will get a white vaginal discharge. (1) Vaginal discharge is a completely normal change that your body makes as it prepares for its first period! It helps to keep the vagina healthy and has a texture that can vary from being thin and sticky to thick and gooey. During this time, it would be wise to invest in some good deodorant as you may experience BO, but this is nothing to be ashamed of as we all get it! Good hygiene practices will allow you to keep any bodily odour at bay so go treat yourself to some nice perfume and luxury bubble bath! Leaks are near enough guaranteed to happen, so it is always a good idea to be prepared by carrying a spare pair of underwear, wipes and plenty of sanitary pads/tampons. We have all been there so try not to panic! If you forget, run out or you period takes you by surprise, don’t worry, you can ask a friend, a teacher or the school nurse – they have seen and heard it all before so there’s no need to feel ashamed, it’s only blood!
Premenstrual syndrome or PMS (2) refers to a combination of symptoms that can be experienced in the weeks leading up to your period. The most common ones include: Mood swings, fatigue, cramps, breast tenderness, headaches, acne and many, many more - YAY! PMS will vary from person to person and you may even be lucky enough to experience none of them! I tend to mainly experience acne and cramps, but I will get tender breasts and headaches from time to time, not to mention the major cravings for sugar and wanting to nap all day! Approach me with caution. Most are manageable, however sometimes your symptoms can mean more than PMS so if you suspect that something isn’t quite right, or your period pains are excruciating it is important to contact your GP. Never ignore your body, you know it best.
The serious stuff
Around 1 in 10 people suffer from a condition called Endometriosis (3). It is a very common condition where the tissue of the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places of the body and can affect any age group, but most cases are diagnosed between the ages of 25-35 (4). The symptoms include; pain in your lower tummy or back, pain during or after sex, pain when going to the toilet, feeling sick, constipation/diarrhoea or blood in your pee, you may also have difficulty getting pregnant (3) but that isn’t to suggest you can’t! There are many treatment options available so don’t lose hope! Painkillers can help ease the pain. Hormone medicines and contraceptives have also proven to help, as well as surgery (3) to remove the tissue. There are many places that offer support groups too such as Endometriosis UK and social media communities. So, if you are struggling, please reach out for help as you are not alone!
Another common medical condition that effects 1 in 10 people is Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS (4). Again, this can be diagnosed in a person’s 20s/30s (5). It effects how the ovaries work and the main features include: Irregular periods, high levels of androgen hormones (6) which can result in excessive hair growth and enlarged ovaries. Whatever your symptoms may be, know that you are not alone. Again, there are plenty of support groups online and sites such as Verity.
This is important to know but don't worry about it too much just yet. If you feel you have symptoms, it is always best to visit your GP. Discussing these issues freely allows more people to be aware of them and be diagnosed and receive the proper treatment early on.
My personal experience with first period
I got my first period when I was in year 8, at the age of 12. Luckily for me I have a very supportive mum and felt very comfortable talking to her about it – I still share my period stories with her to this day! Which sadly isn’t the case for a lot of people. After learning the basics about periods in year 6 I had been preparing for the day for over a year! I was fully stocked up on pads and checked my knickers every time I went to the toilet. I suppose you could say I was somewhat excited to have my first period! During that time, I noticed that I got a lot of vaginal discharge and then the big day arrived! But nothing prepared me for how heavy my flow was – to this day it is still very heavy!
I started using pads and didn’t go onto using tampons until I was about 17/18 (what a game changer that was for me and my heavy flow). Because my periods were so heavy, I used to use thick winged pads and I felt like the entire world could see it through my trousers and would expose me for being on my period! Despite buying the bulkiest pads, I still found I managed to leak at night and was terrified of leaking during school! So, I would wear shorts underneath my pyjama bottoms and school trousers, just in case.
I suffer from quite unpleasant cramps that vary between sharp stabs and a constant dull pain, but it is usually manageable with a hot water bottle and plenty of sweet treats – take note! Another thing I wasn’t expecting to come with my first period was the diarrhoea, a common occurrence during the menstrual cycle which you may experience yourself. As I got to know my body through the many, many periods I began to feel less conscious about taking my bag to the toilet with me in the middle of lessons and wiping the blood off the inside of my leg where it had dripped down during another leak and instead began to think “It’s just blood from my OWN body”. I was very blessed to not only have a supportive mother but the male role models in my family (my dad and two older brothers) never made me feel ashamed about having a monthly bleed! After all, without my mum’s period, neither me nor my siblings would exist right now!
But I understand that this confidence of embracing your period can come with time, so I highly recommend grabbing a copy of 'Blood Moon' by Lucy Cuthew. It is a very empowering young adult book discussing period shaming.
After years of using tampons from the age of 17, I recently started using a menstrual cup and have found that it really suits my heavy flow as I don’t have to empty it as often as I would change a tampon (every 2/3 hours for the first few days.) I feel a lot freer using a menstrual cup as once it is in, I can’t feel it at all, whereas I find tampons a little more uncomfortable. I am still yet to transition using my cup on a night as I currently use pads (I always have) but I find that pads really irritate my skin, so I will be experimenting with that next month – the learning never stops!
Choosing the right products for you
There are multiple options available when it comes to period products. There are sanitary pads, tampons (applicator and non-applicator), menstrual cups and period panties and they all come in various shapes and sizes. Think of them as a plaster being used to stop your knee from bleeding – not so scary anymore huh? So, where should you start? Good question! That is what we are here for.
Pads/Towels: Pads are the most commonly used period product (7) and are usually the first option to reach for when you start your first period. There are several different types of pads such a winged, without wings, panty liners, regular – medium flow, heavy flow and night. Your chosen product will depend on how heavy your flow is – this is different for everyone and can vary throughout your cycle so you may have to try a few different ones out until you find which works best for you. They attach to your underwear and can be disposed of in the bin. Most toilets will have bins specifically for period products, but recently reusable pads have grown in popularity as we become more conscious about our product waste. The number of reusable pads you will need to buy will depend on how heavy your period is, but they can be washed after every use and should last up to 4 years.
Tampons: The second most popular product used are tampons (7). Again, there are different sizes available depending on the heaviness of your flow. These range from slim, regular, super, super plus, and ultra and either come with or without an applicator. Applicators can be helpful to use when you first try to insert a tampon as they do the work for you, ensuring the tampon is pushed in properly and securely, but some people will find it easier without – that is for you to discover! They can be easily removed with the help of the little bit of string attached to the end, simply pull at it to bring the tampon out of the vagina and dispose. Although, it is worth noting that if a tampon is left in for longer than 8 hours, it is possible to result in Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) (8), so make sure you change them regularly throughout the day and don’t sleep with them in! Instead use a pad as standard practice at night. TSS is caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins. If you think you may be experience TSS then seek medical help immediately. For more, go to the NHS website - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/toxic-shock-syndrome/. If you forget to remove a tampon before inserting another one and can’t remove it, then go to your GP who can take it out for you.
Menstrual cups and period pants: These are one of the most sustainable options. Period pants work exactly like a like a reusable pad, absorbing your menstrual blood up. The only difference is that they are an entire pant, so if you have a heavy flow and need to change them regularly, you will have to change the entire knicker. However, like reusable pads, period panties can be washed and used again for up to 2 years. Menstrual cups are commonly believed to be more suited to the more experienced menstruator but there is no age bracket on what period products you should use and when, so if you wish to try one, they are perfectly safe for you to do so, even as a younger menstruator. It’s all about working out what suits you best! Menstrual cups are an alternative to tampons and are inserted into the vagina, but they can hold much more blood and can be used for up to 12 hours depending on your flow. They are usually made of silicone or latex rubber and are shaped like a cup with a stem at the bottom. There are various sizes available depending on various factors such as heaviness of your flow, whether you have given birth vaginally and your age. Unlike tampons, as they can be kept in for up to 12 hours, they are safe to wear during sleep and can last up to 10 years! They need to be rinsed clean after each use and sterilised in boiling water between cycles, so carefully read the instructions on how to clean them properly. Naturally Adapted sell theirs for £8.99, which is far more affordable than most brands.
Around 1 in 10 menstruators are unable to afford any period products and 40% have had to use makeshift period wear (9). This is a worldwide issue effecting millions of people but there is help out there. Recently, the Department of Education launched a new scheme for schools to sign up for free sanitary products to give to their students, although less than 40% have signed up (10), it is worth checking to see if your school offers this - and if not, maybe suggest it to the school as it will help a lot of students, should they need free products. However, there are other options. If you feel you or your family are struggling to afford period products and your school cannot help, you can seek help from charities such as Freedom4girls – here https://www.freedom4girls.co.uk/request-products/.
Sadly only 1 in 5 young people feel comfortable talking to their teacher about their period and almost three quarters admit to feeling embarrassed when wearing period products (9). Shockingly 1 in 10 had even been told not to talk about their periods in front of their mother or father and half have missed an entire day of school because of their period (9). But we want to change this.
If you can’t talk to a family member, then perhaps try talking to a teacher, a pastoral school worker, a school nurse, a friend’s mum or even email Naturally Adapted on email@example.com. They are always here and happy to talk!
Naturally Adapted also support and donate to ActionAid UK as part of the fight to help end period poverty globally. With every purchase you are helping an individual in an impoverished community receive period products so that they can stay in school and receive a full education.
- Period by Emma Barnett https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53894172