Menstrual periods usually last from three to five days, but periods as short as two days or as long as seven may be normal for you. Menstrual flow is usually heaviest in the first two days. It is not unusual for menstrual fluid to contain small clots.

Most women have some occasional pain or discomfort during their period. Typical symptoms include:

  • cramps
  • backache
  • headache
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea

Of these symptoms, cramps are the most common, particularly for young women. Cramps are most often felt in the lower abdomen but may also occur in the lower back or spread down the legs. The medical term for menstrual cramps is dysmenorrhea.

Mild menstrual cramps can be treated in a number of ways. Here are some possibilities:

  • carefully use a hot water bottle or heating pad on the area where you feel the cramp
  • exercise may increase blood flow and help release natural painkillers
  • reducing the salt in your diet may decrease water retention and bloating
  • non-prescription painkillers may help
  • over-the-counter medications specifically for menstrual cramps may help

There are many over-the-counter drugs sold for menstrual cramps. The drugs used in each formula vary so read the label carefully and try to find the product that best matches your symptoms. Some women find that non-specific painkillers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are just as effective and are cheaper.

If you have serious cramps that interrupt your life on a regular basis you should see a doctor. Severe menstrual cramps may be a sign of more serious conditions like endometriosis (particularly if they start after you are 25). If there is no problem other than cramping, your doctor can prescribe painkillers or birth control pills that may relieve your symptoms.

Either pads or tampons can be used to capture the menstrual blood. Some women choose to use menstrual sponges, or menstrual cups, which are made of rubber. Both of these products can be inserted like tampons and removed and rinsed every four to six hours. Menstrual sponges should be boiled for five to ten minutes between each period. You should use whatever method is most comfortable and convenient for you.

Toxic Shock Syndrome

Women who use tampons may be at increased risk of a rare but serious illness called toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This syndrome is caused by a bacterial infection. If you experience symptoms of toxic shock during your period or in the few days immediately afterward, remove your tampon and visit a doctor or emergency room immediately. Symptoms include:

  • sudden high fever–39 degrees Celsius(102 F) or higher
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • muscle aches
  • dizziness, fainting, or near fainting when standing up
  • a rash that looks like a sunburn

You can reduce your risk of toxic shock syndrome by doing the following:

  • use the lowest absorbency tampon possible
  • change your tampon every 6-8 hours
  • alternate between pads and tampons
  • wash your hands before changing your tampon