For this week’s episode of Metro.co.uk’s sex podcast Smut Drop, we hear all about vaginal health from a gynaecology and obstetric care expert.
She says it’s a good idea for us to keep track of the important details surrounding our periods so we can tell doctors exactly what’s wrong if we feel like something’s amiss.
Our doctors will want to know if we’re experiencing things like any abnormal bleeding in between periods or after sex, as well if there’s been persistent a change in the nature of our periods – for example, if they’re really long or unusually heavy.
‘That’s where having an app or a diary to monitor your menstrual cycle is actually pretty good,’ she adds. ‘Because you might feel like it’s super heavy, but actually, how many tampons are you using? How many pads are you going through?
‘Those are the kinds of things that are quite useful for me to know.’
GP Dr Zoe Williams, who works with leading mini pill brand Hana, backs this up, telling Metro.co.uk: ‘The sooner you can keep a period diary, the better.
‘The beauty of this is that you can track just the dates of your periods, or things such as mood, concentration, energy levels, sleep, performance of daily tasks, pain or discomfort levels and appetite.
‘Knowing your own cycle well and how it affects you can help you “hack your hormones”.
‘This means planning certain aspects of your life based on when you know you’ll feel at your best. It’s helpful to know when you will start your period, especially if you’re planning for a holiday or big weekend.
‘When it comes to either trying to conceive or preventing pregnancy, knowing your cycle and being able to spot signs of ovulation, such as egg-white discharge, will give you a head start as well.’
These are pretty strong recommendations, so we wanted to learn more about exactly what should go into a period diary.
Zoya Ali, a reproductive health scientist and sexual health educator, says we should be tracking our whole cycle, not just when we’re on our period, including the whole length of your cycle from day one of consecutive periods.
She explains: ‘It’s also normal to have minor changes in your periods from cycle to cycle because they are very easily influenced by things like stress, diet, lifestyle, illness and travel to name a few.
‘However, irregular cycles could be linked to underlying health conditions such as Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), thyroid hormone imbalances, menopause, etc.
‘An irregular cycle could also be caused due to irregular ovulation. Ovulating regularly is very important when someone is trying to conceive.’
The next things we need to keep in mind are how long our periods last, our flow, any abnormal bleeding and our pain levels.
Dr Zoe says: ‘The most important symptom to take note of is any bleeding that’s outside your usual period window. For example, bleeding after sex or bleeding in between periods.
‘If you’re repeatedly finding that this is happening, then you should make an appointment with your GP to discuss it. There are many possible causes, and most are not serious, but in some cases, this could be a sign of cervical cancer.’
Zoya explains: ‘Flow during your periods is individual to everyone, and someone might naturally experience a heavier flow. On average, periods last about five days and bleeding tends to be heaviest in the first two days.
‘If someone’s flow and pain stops them from going about their daily routine and affects their quality of life it is not okay, and they should seek help.
‘Having very long, heavy and painful periods could also be a sign of an underlying health condition such as fibroids, endometriosis and PCOS. If heavy periods are left untreated they can increase the risk of developing anaemia.
‘In some rare cases, heavy periods and unexpected bleeding between periods have also been linked to gynaecological cancers such as cervical cancer.’
We should also be looking out for changes in our moods and appetites.
‘If someone suspects they might have a mood-based disorder such as PMDD or PME,’ says Zoya, ‘it is important to track their mood through their cycle, so their doctor can understand if it is linked to the hormonal fluctuations happening during the cycle.’
There are also physical signs of PMS to keep in mind, such as bloating, cramps, breast tenderness, and changes in the skin, as well as what’s going on with your cervical mucus and discharge.
‘Cervical mucus keeps changing during the cycle and can be used as a sign of ovulation,’ says Zoya. ‘Any sudden change in colour, texture or smell of the discharge along with itching, and burning could be a sign of an infection.’
If you report pain during or after vaginal penetration, it could be down to a range of things from hormonal imbalances, age or medication.
‘It is also a common symptom associated with endometriosis,’ Zoya adds.
If you do think something’s not quite right with your period, don’t panic – just go see your GP armed with your diary as a useful breakdown of your symptoms.
‘Remember,’ says Dr Zoe, ‘changes to your menstrual cycle can also be a common side effect of taking the pill.
‘This means your periods can be more or less frequent, shorter or longer, lighter or heavier, or they may stop altogether, but this tends to calm down after a few months of taking it. You make also experience spotting between periods initially.’
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