Let’s start with the most important thing: irregular periods can be totally normal, so breathe a sigh of relief. Your period rarely shows up when you think it will – maybe for you it starts a week early, you bleed more heavily than usual, or you miss your period entirely – you’re definitely not alone. Having an irregular period cycle is surprisingly common. They can happen in about 30% of women in their reproductive years i.e., the time during which you have periods and are physically capable of getting pregnant.
Those reproductive years span your teenage years – or whenever you first get your period – to the wind-down of your menstrual cycle, which happens during pre-menopause in your mid-to-late forties. And it’s when things are starting up and winding down that you’re most likely to deal with an irregular period cycle, which makes sense, since there’s a lot going on in your body that can upset your schedule. Really, your body is just figuring out its new schedule, which can mean your period comes early, late, or not at all.
Menstrual cycles are different for everyone, and the timeline varies even once you’re on a regular schedule. While the average length of a menstrual cycle tends to be around 28 days, that’s definitely not the case for everyone – and it also isn’t the same exact timing every single month. Irregular periods are totally normal – just think of it as a monthly guessing game, the women’s health edition.
The exact time between bleeding can be anywhere from 21 to 35 days – it just depends on your body. Generally, your period is considered late when it comes after the 35-day mark. If your period falls beyond this range more than once or twice, it can be a sign of something else going on. It’s a good idea to seek medical advice if your menstrual cycle is less than 21 days or more than 35 – or if you experience other symptoms, such as heavy bleeding or pain. Your doctor can help you get to the bottom of it.
Tracking your period can also give you a better sense of how long your cycle is. It’s really easy – just use our free period tracker to calculate when your next period will be.
If you have an early period, a late period, or missed it altogether, that’s normal if you’ve only been getting your period for three or four months. After that, though, it could mean there’s something else going on.
Hormones are the boss of your reproductive system, controlling everything from ovulation (which is when your ovary releases an egg) to menstruation. They’re in charge of signalling to your body that the egg isn’t fertilised and therefore it’s time to shed the lining of the uterus, which makes up period blood. So, if you have an irregular period cycle, blame it on your hormones.
When your hormones are imbalanced for any reason, it can do some weird things to your period, in terms of both flow and its timing. That’s why irregular periods often happen during your teens or when you first start bleeding; your hormones are usually still getting into the swing of things. Of course, there’s always the possibility that you might be pregnant if you’ve missed a period, in which case your body’s going to hang onto that uterine lining. You could also be menopausal, in which case you’re not ovulating at all. Other than that, there are some fairly common factors that can affect your hormones, in turn leading to irregular periods. Read on to learn about a few of the usual suspects.
Dealing with a breakup, having a big event on the horizon, or just being absolutely swamped at work? That stress can cause irregular periods. When you’re super stressed, your body sends out hormones to prepare you for flight or fight, slowing down non-essential functions – like those for your reproductive system – throwing off your body’s usual timing in the process. If you’re feeling frazzled 24/7, it could lead to getting your period late. Learn more about how stress can cause irregular periods here.
If you lose or gain a significant amount of weight, it could throw a spanner in your body’s hormone balance. (Same goes if you’re restricting your calories.) Once that’s imbalanced, it can lead to a late or missed period.
PCOS is a health condition where your hormones are imbalanced, which can cause irregular periods. As a result, you don’t ovulate regularly and therefore don’t get your period regularly either. You might have a really heavy period, get irregular periods, or frequently experience missed periods. And because it’s a hormonal issue, it can come with some rough symptoms, such as acne, excess hair on the face and body, weight gain, skin tags, and dark patches on the skin.
Some types of contraception work by manipulating your hormones. When you first start or stop taking hormonal contraception, you might have irregular periods as your body gets used to it, but it’s nothing to worry about.
There’s no way to make your period stick to a schedule outside of certain types of contraceptives, which can take the reins from your hormones so you can plan or even skip your period. Otherwise, if your periods are still irregular after a few months and you’re not pregnant, make an appointment to see your doctor. While most irregular periods regulate themselves, a women’s health specialist like an OB-GYN can diagnose something more serious, such as PCOS.