8 things that might happen to your body on and around your period
Reviewed by our clinical team
For most people who get periods, going through that “time of the month” isn’t very pleasant. In addition to worrying about tampons, menstrual cups and pads, it’s also pretty standard to contend with a long list of symptoms – both physical and psychological.
Read on for our guide to the changes you might experience around your period, and how to manage your symptoms.
The symptom most often associated with menstruation is period pain. For some women this is an intense, painful cramping sensation felt in the abdomen – the pain can also spread to the back and thighs.
Period cramps normally begin when you start bleeding, although they might start a few days before your period. They will often come and go over the space of a couple of days, before improving towards the end of your period.
The pain is caused by the womb contracting to help shed the womb lining, which means it’s not a sign of something wrong and is usually nothing to be worried about. However, some women get period pain so bad that it gets in the way of their daily life. In some cases, very severe period pain might be a sign of a condition like endometriosis.
If your period pain is only mild, you should be able to treat it with over-the-counter painkillers. Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and aspirin tend to be the most effective for period pain, but you can also try paracetamol.
Other things that can help include:
- Gentle exercise
- Putting a heat pad or hot water bottle on your abdomen
- Massaging your abdomen
- Relaxation techniques like yoga
- A TENS machine
If you have severe period pain that doesn’t respond to standard painkillers, you don’t have to suffer in silence – make an appointment with your GP to discuss your options.
One good treatment option for severe period pain is a hormonal contraceptive like the pill, the implant or the injection. The hormones in these contraceptives can make your periods lighter and much less painful.
In more serious cases, you might need a referral to a specialist and tests like a pelvic ultrasound or a laparoscopy to find out what’s causing the pain.
Mood changes are experienced by lots of women before they start menstruating. In the days leading up to your period you might notice that you:
- Mood swings
- Feel more anxious
- Feel more irritable or angry
- Feel more depressed
- Feel bad about yourself
- Have trouble sleeping
- Are forgetting things and struggling to concentrate
These symptoms can be challenging, but they don’t necessarily need to be addressed by a doctor, unless they’re disrupting your daily life. Instead, you can try making some lifestyle changes such as:
- Exercising more regularly
- Eating a healthy diet
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
- Reducing stress
- Getting the right amount of sleep
In severe cases, hormone changes before your period might lead to really troubling psychological symptoms like severe anxiety, anger and depression, or suicidal thoughts. Severe symptoms like this are usually referred to as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) – you can learn more about this at the Mind website.
Pain and tenderness in the breasts is very common before your period. Usually, your breasts will feel the most tender in the three to five days before you start menstruating, although some women might experience pain for two weeks beforehand.
As well as being tender, it’s common for both breasts to get swollen, which means they might feel bigger than usual. You might also notice that they feel slightly lumpy – not in any particular place but across the whole breast. This is normal and should go away once you finish your period.
To ease these symptoms, you can take over-the-counter painkillers or use a topical anti-inflammatory directly on the skin of your breasts. You can also try switching over to a well-fitting and more comfortable bra during this time.
Bloating is where your belly feels very full, tight and uncomfortable. It’s quite a common symptom for women before they get their period, and is thought to be caused by changing levels of oestrogen and progesterone causing fluid retention and constipation.
It’s not easy to avoid period bloating because it’s caused by hormone changes, but you might be able to take some steps to alleviate your symptoms and make yourself more comfortable.
If your bloating is caused by constipation, for instance, make sure you’re eating plenty of fibre and drinking lots of water. You can also visit your local pharmacy to ask about over-the-counter treatments for bloating. But if you’re worried about these symptoms or they persist, you should speak to your GP.
If you often find that you have an upset tummy around your period, you’re not alone!
It’s thought that diarrhoea and other digestive symptoms can be caused by the production of prostaglandins. This is a type of chemical that encourages the womb muscles to contract while the lining is shedding.
When prostaglandins get into the bloodstream and travel to the digestive system, they can have the same effective on the bowel, resulting in diarrhoea.
If you have chronic digestive issues that accompany your period, like pain during bowel movements, and regular nausea, constipation and diarrhoea you should see your GP. If these symptoms are accompanied by very intense period pain and pain during or after sex, you may have endometriosis.
Before you menstruate, it’s pretty common to develop “period acne” – this might be a few new spots or an overall worsening of your acne. The same goes for other skin conditions like eczema, which can become worse in the days before you start menstruating.
In both cases, the best thing to do is to make sure that you’re stocked up on any skincare products, pharmacy treatments and prescription medications that you’ll need to manage your symptoms.
With eczema, it can be helpful to avoid your other triggers (e.g. certain foods, fabrics or detergents) in the run-up to your period. You can also help protect your skin by applying emollients every day, even when you’re not having a flare-up.
If you feel that your skin symptoms aren’t well managed, visit your GP for advice or – for acne treatment – visit the Online Doctor clinic.
If you get migraines, you may have noticed that you experience a headache either in the run-up to or the first few days of your period.
This is a symptom known as a “hormone headache” and it’s thought to affect more than half of women with migraine. It’s caused by a drop in oestrogen levels, and can also be brought on by the menopause and pregnancy.
If you’re experiencing migraines around the time of your period, there are a few things you can do, including:
- Eating regularly to keep your blood sugar up
- Sticking to a regular sleep pattern
- Avoiding stress wherever possible
Medications include standard migraine treatments like triptans, as well as over-the-counter painkillers.
You might also benefit from taking continuous contraceptive pills with no seven-day break between packs, as this causes a drop in oestrogen that could bring on symptoms.
Feeling more tired and low-energy before and during your period is pretty standard. It’s thought that this happens because of falling serotonin levels, which happens as oestrogen decreases before you start menstruating.
Other reasons for tiredness during your period include low iron caused by heavy bleeding, and disturbed sleep caused by period pains or mood changes.
If you’re feeling very tired all the time and there’s no clear explanation, it’s a good idea to visit your GP.
Treatments for PMS
If you’re regularly experiencing symptoms like mood changes, breast tenderness, bloating and tiredness before you get your period, it’s worth speaking to your GP. There are some lifestyle changes you can make to improve your symptoms, including exercising more regularly. You might also benefit from medication.
The combined contraceptive pill can help reduce the symptoms associated with your period. Alternatively, you might be recommended antidepressants or having cognitive behavioural therapy if you find that your worst symptoms are psychological in nature.
For more guidance, check out this page on the NHS website.