You know when you’re on your period.
The blood is flowing, your mood is swinging, and your cramping uterus just confirms what you already know to be true.
When you’re spotting, things might not be so clear.
Seeing a few red dots in your underwear could mean so many different things: pregnancy, ovulation, stress, a looming visit from Aunt Flo. Regardless of how well you know your body and your menstrual cycle, unexpected bleeding of any kind can be anxiety inducing. Don’t panic—we’ve got the lowdown on spotting before, after, and in-between your periods.
The difference between spotting and your period.
Generally, periods come every 21 to 35 days. Some women have shorter periods that last up to 2 days, while others menstruate for up to 7 days. Still others can bleed for even longer but this is a sign of a heavy period (or menorrhagia) and, although common, is not normal and can indicate that there are underlying reproductive issues.
The first day of your period is considered “day 1” of your monthly cycle and is often accompanied by period pains: headaches, cramps, cravings, and the like. Though it may seem like you’re bleeding out, the amount of blood women release is usually between 4 and 7 tablespoons. The color of period blood can range but is typically red or, if your uterus is shedding off old tissue, brown.
On the other hand, spotting can occur at any time during your monthly cycle and is most likely going to be just a few drops of blood throughout the day. Spotting blood is usually either light pink or dark brown. Though cramps and periods seem to be best buds, you probably won’t feel any pain if you’re spotting—unless you are experiencing implantation spotting but we’ll get to that.
Now that you’re clear on the differences between spotting and having your period, let’s move on to the really important stuff: why you’re spotting at different times throughout your menstrual cycle.
When our society glorifies busy-ness and often views a packed schedule as a status symbol, who isn’t stressed these days? No one, that’s who. Whether it’s stress from a chaotic career, family issues, or just general pressure to be amazing at everything (you really are enough, lady), increased levels of cortisol can take a toll on your menstrual cycle. While missed or irregular periods are common symptoms of being so stressed that you can’t even, so is spotting.
If you can correlate your spotting to times when your stress levels are through the roof, you may have identified the cause. Your best bet is to do what you can to tone down on the stress — take a bubble bath, do some yoga, or just start saying no to things you don’t want to do (or don’t really have time for). Managing your stress in a healthy way should help your spotting subside and your menstrual cycle go back to normal.
You are ovulating.
When you finish up your period, your brain signals to your ovaries that it’s time to make an egg. When your ovaries release that egg into your fallopian tube, you’re officially ovulating. This usually happens around day 14 of your cycle but, of course, this can vary if you have a shorter or longer cycle. That 12 to 24-hour window that your egg is waiting for sperm to find and fertilize it can cause bleeding. Though only about 1 to 2 percent of women have ovulation spotting, those who do may find that their pink or light brown spotting is mixed in with some “egg white” looking discharge, which is a sign of ovulation and fertility.
Your eggo is preggo.
So, you know how your ovaries release an egg during ovulation? Well, if that egg isn’t fertilized, it dissolves into the inner lining of your uterus, which is sloughed off during your period. But if it is fertilized, it travels back up into your uterus, sperm in tow, and implants to start growing a baby. While your egg gets cozy in your uterus, you may experience what is known as implantation bleeding. This is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy but is not one that all women experience. If you do get implantation spotting, it can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple days and you just might feel a little bit of cramping in your lower abdomen.
Your period just stopped.
You just put the unused tampons from your purse back into the little black box on your counter (yay!) but – bam! – spots of blood in your favorite panties. WTH, right? Well, lady, hate to break it to you but this is one of the most common spotting times. The reason behind after-period spotting is usually that your uterus didn’t finish flushing out its unused inner lining. Unless your period starts again soon after it ends, you don’t have anything to worry about.
You just started birth control.
Though men can’t seem to handle the side effects as well as women can, birth control is still such a great invention. Especially for those of us who don’t want children (yet or ever), dealing with the side effects is well worth it if it means preventing pregnancy. One of those side effects is spotting.
If you just got an IUD, spotting is a normal symptom that can last several months. Thankfully, many IUD users eventually have lighter periods or no periods at all. Similarly, starting, stopping, or missing a dose of an oral contraceptive can cause pink or brown spotting. This is due to your estrogen, which keeps the lining of your uterus in place. Doing anything that alters your estrogen levels can cause spotting.
You took a morning after pill.
That night of fun ended with you popping a Plan B on your way home the next morning. You thought all was good in your uterus but now you’re spotting. Don’t mistake this as a sign of pregnancy or your period. The hormones present in emergency contraceptive—estrogen and progesterone—can cause light spotting. It should go away pretty quickly so put on a pantyliner and go celebrate not being pregnant with a mimosa (or 3).
You have uterine fibroids.
Uterine fibroids are a type of benign tumor that grow in and around the wall of the uterus. Though doctors haven’t identified a specific cause of fibroids, they do say that African American women and overweight women are more at risk for developing them. Spotting is one of the main side effects, along with infertility, painful sex, lower back pain, and a chronically bloated feeling. In other words, don’t assume you have uterine fibroids just because you’re spotting. There are a lot of other causes that are far more likely.
So this is a little tricky. Being sick with the cold or flu isn’t likely to cause spotting but not feeling well when you’re spotting could be a sign of another health problem—anything from an STI, like chlamydia, to a miscarriage to cervical cancer.
Don’t jump right to this conclusion, though. It’s another factor you can consider but isn’t necessarily a primary cause of spotting. Rule out stress, birth control, and pregnancy before you start Googling symptoms and diagnosing yourself. Actually, don’t even attempt to diagnose yourself. Go to your doctor if you think something is wrong—you know your body better than anyone.
You recently got your first period.
Reaching your menarche may be the start of a decades-long menstrual cycle but rarely are the first few years of bleeding consistent. In addition to irregular periods making it hard to know when you’re safe to rock your white shorts, spotting is a common occurrence for girls who are just getting acquainted with tampons, cramps, and an undeniable craving for chocolate.
Should you worry?
Don’t worry until it’s time to worry. Basically, if you can link your spotting to stress, birth control, the morning-after pill, or your first period, you’re in the clear. If you think you have an STI, cervical cancer, are pregnant, or have uterine fibroids, it could be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Overall, spotting is normal and nothing to freak out about. It’s not something you can (or need to) try and stop. Just let your uterus do its thing. On that note, if you are spotting for more than a week at a time, have any pain or discomfort during spotting, or just have a feeling that something isn’t right – trust your gut instinct and head to your gynecologist.
One final point on spotting: don’t use a tampon (even a low-absorbency one) to control spotting. This can greatly increase your risks of getting Toxic Shock Syndrome, since spotting doesn't produce nearly enough moisture to make using a tampon safe. Stick with a pantyliner and you’ll be just fine.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Janet Brito.
FEATURED IMAGE BY LANA ABIE
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