When you get your period, it can feel never ending. So when it peaces out quicker than normal, it might seem like a reason to celebrate. But if your period suddenly goes from lasting a week to lasting just a few days, there could be something more serious going on than the powers that be simply cutting you a break.
“I recommend seeing your gyno if your flow is persistently or newly varied from usual,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V. “Most women’s cycles last 21 to 35 days, counting from day one of one cycle to day one of next cycle, and their periods last five to seven days on average.”
And while Dr. Dweck notes that shorter periods can be normal (if your period lasts two to three days, and it’s always lasted two to three days, no biggie), it’s important to pay attention to your cycle, and note any changes. After all, the length of your period is largely determined by hormonal factors, says Lakeisha Richardson, MD, an ob-gyn based in Greenville, Mississippi. That means that everything from medications to underlying health conditions can throw off your cycle. Some of those causes are totally benign, but others are best ruled-out (or caught) early.
Here, experts share the most common reasons that you period might go from six days to, say, three suddenly. Rule them out the next time your period cuts out early.
You’ve Switched Birth Control
If your period is suddenly breaking pattern, consider if you’ve started or changed birth control methods. “The pill might lessen the length of flow,” says Dr. Dweck. Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, agrees. “Most birth control pills and rings, like the Annovera vaginal ring, lead to lighter flow,” she says. “The combined hormonal contraceptives contain a good amount of progestins—synthetic progesterone—which limit the build-up of a lot of tissue lining the uterus,” she explains. As a result, there’s less of a flow when it’s go time. Progestin-only IUDs “allow a very limited buildup,” Dr. Minkin says, and many women have a lighter flow or even no period when they have one of those implanted.
Also, there could be slight hormonal differences in generic versions that could affect your cycle length, so make sure to check the packaging.
You’re On A Certain Type of Medication
Beyond the birth control pill, certain medicines could also affect your period, thanks to the chemicals in them. “NSAIDs [like Advil, Naprosyn, ibuprofen, etc.], antidepressants, thyroid medications, and steroids might shorten flow,” Dr. Dweck says.
The way each of these medications lighten your flow varies slightly. With NSAIDs, “the idea is that the NSAID reduces the number of inflammation compounds called prostaglandins, which in turn can lessen the amount of bleeding because prostaglandins affect the blood vessels in the inner lining of the uterus,” explains women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD.
Not sure if the meds you’ve taken are messing with your flow? “Ruling out other causes of change in flow and taking a good medical history might lead to diagnosing medication as the cause of menstrual change,” Dr. Dweck says.
You Have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a condition where women overproduce amounts of male hormones, which can suppress ovulation. “Women with PCOS will have a long history of irregular cycles,” explains Dr. Richardson. “They may also have months when they don’t have a menstrual cycle at all because of their imbalanced hormone levels.”
If you’re suffering from PCOS, you’ll likely also experience cysts on your ovaries, hirsutism (or excessive hairiness), acne, obesity, and infertility, she says. “PCOS is not a medical emergency, but seeing your ob-gyn as soon as possible to prescribe medication can help minimize the symptoms.”
You’re Suffering From Premature Ovarian Failure
“Premature ovarian failure or primary ovarian insufficiency occurs when women have loss of normal ovarian function prior to 40 years old,” explains Dr. Richardson. If your ovaries aren’t working correctly, they won’t produce the right amounts of estrogen or release eggs when they’re supposed to, which could lead to shortened and irregular cycles, she says.
Premature ovary failure typically shows up around age 27, but occurs in one in 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 29 and one in 100 women between the ages of 30 and 39, according to RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. “The most common symptom of premature ovarian failure is infertility and amenorrhea [loss of periods],” says Dr. Richardson, “and it’s diagnosed by ultrasound and blood test—the hormone levels would be consistent with menopause.”
Translation: If you think you may have premature ovarian failure and want to get pregnant in the future, talk to your doc about getting tested as well as your fertility options.
You Have Uterine Scarring
Scarring in the uterus can lead to shorter periods. This is known as Asherman Syndrome, a rare condition that most often occurs in women who have had multiple dilation and curettage (D&C;) procedures, says Dr. Richardson. D&C;’s are often used to empty the uterus following miscarriage, as an abortion method, and to treat certain gynecological conditions.
“Women who have Asherman Syndrome have shorter cycles or amenorrhea because only the areas of the uterus that are not scarred are capable of bleeding. The more scarring that is involved, the less bleeding will occur.”
This condition would be diagnosed by hysteroscopy, says Dr. Richardson, and the adhesions (or scars) would have to be removed surgically in order for your flow to return to normal and to improve your ability to conceive, if desired.
“Most women who are breastfeeding exclusively will not have a cycle while they are breastfeeding,” says Dr. Richardson. “Breastfeeding could delay ovulation for as long as 18 months, because the body is suppressing ovulation hormones by producing prolactin, alpha-lactalbumin, and lactose synthesis.” A normal cycle will return only when you stop or decrease the amount of breastfeeding, but even then, it could be shorter than normal due to the fluctuating hormones.
You Have A Thyroid Disorder
It sounds strange, but your thyroid can actually affect your period. “The thyroid gland is regulated in the pituitary-hypothalamus axis of the brain, as are the hormones that regulate ovulation and menstruation,” says Dr. Dweck. “When one aspect of the axis is disturbed, so might be other aspects.”
Other indications of an over- or underactive thyroid issue can include appetite and weight changes, difficulty with temperature regulation, hair changes, feelings of anxiety, and heart palpitations, according to Dr. Dweck. If you think you might have a thyroid disorder, talk to your doc about getting tested. Thyroid issues are common and treating them is important to maintaining both fertility (if that’s your thing) and overall health.
Watch a doctor explain what you can do to help a thyroid disorder:
You Have Implantation Bleeding
Implantation is an early part of the pregnancy process when an embryo (i.e. fertilized egg) burrows into your uterine lining. It’s possible to bleed a little when that happens. And, if the timing lines up with your period, it’s understandable that you might think you’re having a period when you’re actually not.
“Implantation can be associated with some light bleeding—and to some women they might think it’s a very light period,” Dr. Minkin says.
“It can be difficult to tell the difference between implantation bleeding and a short period for some women because implantation can occur roughly six to 12 days after conception, which is often when a woman would expect her period,” Dr.Wider says. “The symptoms can look the same.” If there’s a chance you might be pregnant and you’re not sure what’s going on down there, a pregnancy test can help rule pregnancy in or out, she says.
You’re Really Stressed Out
Stress can screw with just about everything in your life, so it’s hardly shocking that it can mess with your cycle, too. “High levels of stress can cause an increase in the production of [stress hormone] cortisol which in turn can cause a disruption in the way our bodies function normally,” Dr. Wider says.
Under normal (read: non-frazzled) times, your brain’s hypothalamus produces chemicals that trigger your pituitary gland to signal your ovaries to release estrogen and progesterone, she explains. “With an increase in cortisol from stress, that axis can get messed up and the menstrual cycle can become irregular,” Dr. Wider says.
“The less estrogen, the less stimulation of the lining of the uterus, so less bleeding,” Dr. Minkin adds.
You’re In Perimenopause
“As women age, their cycle may become shorter—especially as they get closer to menopause,” says Dr. Richardson. Perimenopause, the time before menopause, when your body starts transitioning hormonally, typically starts in a woman’s 40s, but can start as early as the thirties. And “it can last anywhere from four to six years,” says Richardson. “During that time, women may have shorter cycles or may not have a cycle at all.” This is all perfectly normal, and there’s no need to seek medical attention during this time, she says. But if you’re concerned, especially about your fertility, a visit to your doc certainly can’t hurt.
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