By Kendall McKenzie
The crimson wave. Cousin Red. Your monthly gift. Every month, we soak it up with pads and tampons, collect it in cups, and generally just try to keep it from ruining our favorite underpants. But, what’s in that colorful, messy goo anyway? Here’s the low-down on visiting Flow Town.
What Is That Stuff?
It may look like plain-ol’ blood, but your period is actually a little more complicated than that. “Menses,” the fancy term for your menstrual flow, is mostly made up of tissue that covers the walls of your uterus. This uterine lining, called endometrium, gets thick every month to prepare a nice, cushy home for a fertilized egg. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, your uterus contracts to shed the lining (oh hi, cramps!), which then “flows” out of your vagina. Voilà: period!
Menstrual flow does contain blood, which is why your period looks the way it does. But, within this flow, there’s also a mixture of cervical mucus, vaginal fluids, and bacteria, plus that thick endometrial lining. The clots you sometimes see aren’t actually blood clots; rather, they're clumps of solid endometrial tissue or thick discharge colored by the blood (which is totally normal, by the way).
What If My Period Has An Odor?
Sometimes, our periods smell a little, and other times they don’t. If you detect a funk that bothers you during your period, try changing your pads and tampons every few hours, and washing your vulva (the outside parts of your genitals) with mild soap and water. Don’t put soap inside your vagina and do not douche. Stay away from scented tampons, pads, and vaginal deodorants. They can cause irritation, which can lead to infections that may make odors worse — among other things.
Vaginal odors vary throughout your entire menstrual cycle, including during your period. It’s normal for some days to feel fresher than others (and you’re usually the only one who can tell, so don’t stress). However, consider making an appointment with a nurse or your doctor if the odor suddenly seems stronger and more unpleasant than usual, continues for several days, and/or is accompanied by pain or irritation. These symptoms may be the signs of an STI or vaginitis (a common vaginal irritation caused by things like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis).
Healthy periods come in a rainbow of reds: from bright crimson to nearly-black burgundy, which turns brownish when it’s exposed to air (like all blood). Brown or brownish-red discharge, called “spotting,” sometimes happens mid-cycle when you ovulate, or at the end of your period as older flow is being flushed out.
Everyone’s flow is different and can change over the years, so paying attention to your body will help you learn what your "normal” is. However, it's recommended that you see a nurse or doctor if you have:
- Flow so heavy you have to change your pad or super tampon every one to two hours
- Super-painful, debilitating cramps
- Periods that last longer than seven days
- Weird bleeding between periods
- Clumps of tissue bigger than a golf ball
- Menstrual cycles that become irregular or stop suddenly
While spotting every once in a while is common, check with a health care provider if you spot frequently or only spot in place of a regular period. Certain types of birth control methods (like the implant or IUDs) may cause harmless spotting, especially in the first year of use. However, see a doctor if you’re also having severe cramping or pain.
Beyond serving as a go-to source for vital reproductive care, the folks at Planned Parenthood— a team of knowledgeable experts in medicine, sexual health, and law — are passionate, informed advocates for knowing your own body. Planned Parenthood is here to tackle the big issues.