Women may experience irregular periods for a wide variety of reasons. The occasional missed period is usually nothing to worry about. In some cases, erratic menstrual cycles can have perfectly natural explanations. However, irregular periods can also be a sign of serious medical issues. Understanding the difference between what is normal and what may indicate a problem can bring valuable peace of mind and may lead to needed medical intervention if a problem exists.
A typical monthly period will occur once every 25 to 29 days and last five to seven days with the heaviest flow on the first two days. Variations from these general standards may be defined as “irregular periods.” Frequently skipping periods or periods that come more than once per month are considered irregular. An irregular period may be short with very light flow or so heavy that it soaks through feminine products on an hourly basis.
The regularity of the monthly cycle is a matter of concern throughout a woman’s life. It’s not uncommon for young girls to experience irregular periods when they first begin to menstruate. This is due to fluctuating hormones that will level off over time. Monthly periods do not occur at all during pregnancy. Many women also do not menstruate when they are breastfeeding. Middle-aged women who are going through perimenopause will generally experience irregular periods until menstruation stops all together.
The most common reason for a missed period is something called “anovulation.” This simply means that ovulation did not occur during a given cycle and therefore the period is missed. It is perfectly normal to experience anovulation from time to time. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone operate on a delicate balance throughout a woman’s life. When that balance is upset for any reason, irregular periods may result.
Some of the more serious contributing factors to irregular periods can include cysts, polyps and fibroids in the uterus. Certain medications including chemotherapy may also cause disruptions in once regular menstrual cycles. Polycystic ovary syndrome can cause irregular periods and can also lead to some very serious complications such as heart disease or ovarian cancer.
There is no hard and fast rule for what constitutes a regular menstrual cycle, only general guidelines. The pattern for menstrual activity will vary from woman to woman. The best way to understand what is normal is to chart individual menstrual activity from month to month. Once a pattern has been observed, a woman will be able to better understand what is “regular” for her.
While many of the factors behind irregular periods are beyond a woman’s control, there are also patterns of behavior that can interrupt normal cycles. Excessive exercise and poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse and overuse of caffeine can cause menstrual disruptions. Stress and emotional trauma may be contributing factors as well. But when a woman takes proactive steps to improve her health and deal with stress effectively she may see her cycle return to normal.
The treatment for irregular periods will be determined by the cause. Some doctors prescribe hormonal birth control to regulate sporadic cycles. Use of hormones to treat irregular periods and other symptoms of menopause has come into question since a connection has been established between hormone replacement therapy and certain cancers. For this reason, the pros and cons of using hormones to treat irregular periods should be thoroughly discussed with a physician.