National Women’s Health Week runs May 12 to 18 with the goal of empowering women
to make their health a priority. This is the first in a series this week focusing on women’s health
issues from the teenage years through menopause.
A girl’s first period is
considered an important milestone and an indicator she’s “growing up.” After
sharing the news, many girls prefer to manage their periods on their own
without much discussion with family. But because their period is brand-new,
girls don’t yet know what’s “normal.” As a result, every now and then, a girl’s
periods can be abnormally irregular, heavy, or long for an extended amount of
time before she gets needed help for this.
It’s a good idea for
parents to encourage girls to keep track of their periods on a calendar and to review
it with them periodically for the first couple of years. There are several free
smart phone apps that make this easy. As a rule, girls’ cycles are longer than
adult women’s. However, anywhere between 21 and 45 days from the first day of
one period to the first day of the next is considered OK. Girls with more than
two cycles outside this range or who skip their period for three consecutive
months may be fine, or they may need further evaluation. A visit to the primary
care physician can offer reassurance or initiate further management if needed.
Knowing how much bleeding
is too much bleeding can be a big challenge to someone who’s never had a normal
period. A normal period does not last longer than seven days. Other signs that
bleeding may be too heavy include needing to use more than six (soaked) pads or
tampons per day, passing clots larger than the size of a quarter, or leaking
onto clothes during the day or onto bed sheets at night. However, leaking can
also be a sign of not changing sanitary products often enough. This is
important to discuss with girls, especially those who get their period while
still in elementary school. For girls in middle and high school, bathroom
access is sometimes excessively restricted during the day; accommodations can
be made for girls during their period by talking with school officials.
Menstrual cramps typically
do not appear until after a girl has already had her period for a couple of
years. For girls whose cramps require more than a good night’s rest, a healthy
diet, and a heating pad, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines such as
ibuprofen (found in brands such as Advil and Motrin)
and naproxen sodium (as in Aleve) work well. Starting the medicine
as early as possible, before cramps are severe, and using it every eight hours
for the first day is most helpful. For girls whose cramps do not respond to
this, seeking medical care for further treatment makes good sense. Girls should
not need to miss school or skip activities because of their periods!
Primary care doctors can
address most questions related to girls’ periods. However, when additional
concerns exist, the Division of Adolescent
Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC is staffed with
doctors and nurse practitioners who are experts in the care of adolescents.