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5 Things You Didn't Know About Your Period

Even well-informed women have questions about their menstrual cycle. Here are answers to the most common questions encountered by gynecologists.

2. Why are my cycles irregular? continued...

"Many women consider themselves not normal if they don't get their period on the same day of the month, every month," says Mary S. Dolan, MD, MPH, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. She tells them not to worry and not to expect it the exact same day of the month.

Sometimes women's memory about when their last period was is not accurate, she says. For that reason, she suggests her patients keep a menstrual calendar or other record, making note each month of when their period starts and stops.

Other reasons for irregular or missed periods (besides pregnancy) include excessive weight gain or loss, eating disorders, strenuous exercise such as that done by endurance athletes, and hormonal problems.

If your period doesn't return to normal the next month, you can check in with your doctor.

3. Is it possible to get pregnant during my period?

Possible, but not likely, experts concur. The key is to determine if the bleeding is really a period, says Dolan. It may just be spotting between periods.  "Some women have bleeding when they are ovulating,'' Dolan says. "And if you interpret that as a period, yes, you can get pregnant."

Or a woman may have intercourse toward the end of her period and, depending on the length of her cycle, ovulate a few days later. "You could technically be at the end of your period, ovulate two or three days later, and the sperm is still there," Dolan says. And you could get pregnant. Not likely, but possible.

4. If I get my period, can I be sure I am not pregnant?

You can't be 100% sure, says Dolan. "It could be bleeding in early pregnancy," she says. "You can't always tell the difference."  Pay attention to whether it progresses as a regular period.

She advises women: If you have other symptoms such as nausea, check with your doctor. A pregnancy test might be wise.

5. If I leave in a tampon too long, am I at risk for toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, a life-threatening illness caused from a bacterial infection, made headlines in 1980 when an outbreak occurred that mostly involved young women who had been using a specific brand of very absorbent tampons (the brand is now off the market.) The bacteria produce toxins that cause toxic shock syndrome.

TSS is marked by a sudden onset of fever, chills, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle aches, and rash. Some experts say that very absorbent tampons, when left in place for a long time, become a breeding ground for bacteria and cause the syndrome. Others say how long you leave in a tampon doesn't increase your risk of getting sick. 

Ideally, how long should you leave in a tampon? "Follow what the package insert says,'' suggests Deidre Defoe, MD, clinical director of Rachel's Well, a nonprofit women's health care organization based in Virginia.

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