White underwear stained with chilli powder to resemble menstrual blood
(C) Love Matters | Rita Lino

Menstruation, ovulation, and fertilisation

Towards the end of puberty, you start having periods. Having a period means losing some blood through your vagina approximately once a month.

Most women and girls lose between two and four tablespoons of blood each month. You can use tampons or sanitary towels (pads) to soak it up.

How does it work?

When you reach puberty, your ovaries start producing oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones make the lining of your womb get thicker once a month and ready for getting pregnant.
Meanwhile, there are hormones also signalling your ovaries to produce and release an unfertilised egg. In most women, this happens once every 28 days or so.

No fertilisation = getting your period.

In general, if you don't have sexual intercourse around the time of your ovulation (when your ovaries release an egg), it's unlikely that any sperm reaches and fertilises your egg. So the womb lining, which became thicker to prepare for pregnancy, is shed as menstrual blood. And you get your period! This cycle is called menstruation.

Changes over time

If you’ve only just started having periods, you might not actually ovulate yet. This is a natural way to protect you if your body isn't actually ready for pregnancy just yet.

During the first year you have your periods, you may only ovulate (release an egg) 20 per cent of the time. So, if you have 12 periods a year, you probably only release an egg two or three times.

Remember, every woman is different and once you’re sexually mature you can get pregnant any month! You can even get pregnant if you’ve never had a period. Don’t think just because you haven't been having periods for long you don’t need to use birth control. That could be a very big mistake!

Fertilisation and ovulation

Ovulation is the release of eggs from the ovaries.

When you ovulate, if there are no sperm cells in your fallopian tube – either because you haven’t had sex or you used a contraceptive – then the egg won’t be fertilised. Your body then gets rid of the lining of the womb, so mucus and blood come out of your vagina. This is called menstruation, or having your period. In general, it lasts between four and seven days.

Your menstrual cycle runs from the first day of your period to the first day of your next period. This takes about 28 days (four weeks), but different people’s cycles vary between 21 and 42 days (3–6 weeks).

The menstrual cycle
© Love Matters

Phase I: Menstruation (day 1 to day 5)
On the first day of your cycle, the tissue from the lining of the womb, the blood, and the unfertilised egg cell leave your body through your vagina. You have your period. In a 28-day cycle, this phase lasts between one and five days. Don’t worry if your period is as short as two days or as long as eight days. This is normal.

Phase II: Follicular (day 6 to day 14)
After your period ends, your womb lining begins to get thicker. Also, one of your ovaries produces one mature unfertilised egg. You may notice changes in vaginal discharge. It may become stickier, white, milky, or cloudy. These changes may signal that you are entering the fertile time of the month.
Just before you ovulate, your vaginal discharge may change to a texture and colour similar to a raw egg white. This discharge can be slippery and clear, which can help sperm travel to the egg. Like the menstruation phase, the length of this phase varies: it can be as short as seven days or as long as 19.

Phase III: Ovulation (day 14)
During ovulation, the ovary releases a mature egg, which passes into the fallopian tube. Some women may feel a slight pain on one side of their lower back or abdominal area around the time of ovulation. This too is normal. Ovulation takes place about 14 days after the first day of your period. Meanwhile, the lining of your womb gets even thicker.

Signs of Ovulation
Some women experience changes when they are ovulating like:

  • A change in vaginal discharge.
  • A brief pain or dull ache felt on one side of the abdomen.
  • An increased desire for sex.
  • A bloated abdomen.
  • A keener sense of vision, smell, or taste.

Phase IV: Ovulation to menstruation (day 15 to day 28)
The released egg travels down the fallopian tube to the womb. The womb lining gets even thicker to receive the egg. If the egg isn’t fertilised by a sperm cell, it dies. Your body gets rid of the extra womb lining and egg cell, and your period starts again.

If the egg cell is fertilised and it settles into the lining of the womb, and your period doesn’t come: you’re pregnant. The menstrual cycle stops until after you give birth.

Can I ovulate right after my period?

It depends on how many days are in your cycle.

If you have a regular cycle – with 28 days from the start of one period to the start of the next – it is less likely that you will ovulate right after your period.

You may bleed up to the seventh day of your cycle, and we know ovulation usually starts 12–16 days before your next period. This means you ovulate between day 12 and 16 of your cycle.

If you have an irregular cycle – lasting just 21 days or as long as 42 days – it’s more likely that you could ovulate soon after your period. For instance, in a 21-day cycle, you may stop bleeding on day seven of your cycle, but you may ovulate between day five and day nine of your cycle.

How can I work out when I’m going to ovulate?

Well, it takes a bit of maths! You have to work backwards from when your period starts. The time you’re likely to ovulate lasts four days, between 16 and 12 days before the first day of your period.

If you have a period every 28 days, take 16 away from 28:
28 - 16 = 12

That means the four days you’re most likely to ovulate begin 12 days after your period starts. So your period starts on day one, and you ovulate between day 12 and 16.

If you have a period every 21 days, take 16 away from 21:
21 - 16 = 5

That means the four days you’re likely to ovulate begin five days after your period starts. So your period starts on day one, and you ovulate between day five and day 9.

Puzzled? Try an online ovulation calculator!

Could I ovulate without having a period?

You could ovulate without having a period if:

  • Your body weight is very low.
  • You're breastfeeding.
  • You're approaching the menopause.

Getting pregnant

You’re only able to have a baby during certain times of your life. For many girls and women, this is between about the ages of 15 and 49, when you have monthly periods and are ovulating regularly.
Most girls or young women ovulate every month, in between their periods. During ovulation, an unfertilised egg cell travels out of one of the ovaries and down the fallopian tube to the womb.

To get pregnant, you have intercourse with a man around the time you ovulate – usually about 14 days after the first day of your last period. After sex, the sperm swims up the vagina and into the fallopian tubes. If there’s an egg waiting in one of the fallopian tubes, the tiny sperm tries to burrow their way inside it. If one sperm gets inside the egg, it’s fertilised.

The fertilised egg then moves down the fallopian tube to the womb. Hormones make sure the lining of the womb is ready to receive the egg. If the fertilised egg nestles into the lining of the womb, you become pregnant.

Can I get pregnant when I’m having my period?

Yes. Since sperm can live in the vaginal opening for up to five days after sex, if you have unprotected sex during your period and you ovulate soon after your period, the sperm can fertilise the egg. And you get pregnant.

Period pains

You may not feel so good when you get your period, or right before your period. If this is not you, count yourself lucky!

Many get stomach aches and get in a bad mood. Sometimes you may feel tired, grumpy, or sad right before your period. This is pretty common. Most of it's related to the changes in your hormones levels.

What can you do when you've got period pain?
The best thing to do is look after yourself. Here are some suggestions:

For stomach aches:

  • Use a hot water bottle/bag on your stomach to ease the cramps.
  • Take a paracetamol or aspirin.

For a headache:

  • Take a paracetamol or aspirin.

For bloating or swelling:

  • Cut down the amount of salt you eat for a few days before your period.

For tiredness:

  • Take vitamin supplements that include calcium (or drink milk).
  • Have plenty of rest and try to get eight hours of sleep.

For moodiness:

  • Exercising regularly for up to 30 minutes a day helps maintain a happy outlook on life
  • For food cravings like chocolate:
  • Eat dark chocolate, yoghurt, or drink milk

If you've got extreme pain, and these suggestions don't help or you have problems with irregular cycles or excessive blood flow, contact your nearest health care provider for more guidance.

Comments
much helpfull but i hv tried 2 get pregnet after my period immediately and be4 2 days starting my period, is it b'se i haven't understand my cycle? plz teacher me more coz i need 2 conceive my dear
Hi Pavin, you are more likely to conceive around the time you are ovulating. Ovulation takes place about 14 days after the first day of your period. Use the following Online Ovulation Calculator to estimate your fertile days https://www.babycenter.com/ovulation-calculator Also, have a look at the following article for more tips to improve your chances of getting pregnant;- https://lovematters.co.ke/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts

Hi Sharry, thank you for the feedback. Any bleeding that is not normal should be a concern. It's not normal to bleed every time you have sex. I suggest you visit a health centre for a check up and possible treatment. 

Hey May, you would have to stop using the contraceptive first. You maybe able to get pregnant soon after you stop using the contraceptives. However for some contraceptives and for some people it may take alittle longer to get pregnant. Consider talking to your health provider for more details concerning the contraceptive you have been using. Have a look at the following article for additional infomation;- https://lovematters.co.ke/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts

Hey Eliza, It’s fine to use soap to wash between your legs and your outer labia, but it’s not a good idea to use it to wash between your labia or inside your vagina. Which also means salty water is not good. Using soap or or even salty water to wash your vagina can upset the natural balance of bacteria, which may encourage yeast infections. It can cause itching and irritation and can be a cause of pain during intercourse. If you do use soap, choose a mild baby soap without strong perfumes. Check out this article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/staying-clean

My wife has irregular periods she is not even able to tell when she is ovulating. We have been trying to get pregnant what can we do to be successful?

Hi Dono, the irregular periods that your partner is experiencing are caused by a number of issues including, eating disorders, excessive weight gain or weight loss, stress or emotional problems. Hormonal problems can also lead to irregular period. If you have been to get pregnant for longer than 1 year, it maybe important to consult a Specialist Gynecologist for a check up and further advice. Check out the following article for more information;- 

https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/menstruation

https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts

Hey Sera, To clean the vagina, you can use warm water to wash your vulva, but it’s not a good idea to use soap, salty water or even an anti-septic, especially on your inner labia and inside your vagina. These are likely to upset the natural balance of bacteria and actually make you more likely to get infections including yeast (fungal) infections. They can also be a cause of itching and irritation or pain during intercourse. If you do choose to use soap, use a gentle one without strong perfumes like baby soap. Check out the following articles;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/genital-hygiene-dos-and-donts

https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/menstruation-myths-busted

Hi Laurah, aside from pregnancy, there are other reasons that may lead to a delayed period including hormonal imbalance, weight gain or weight loss, change of environment, eating disorders and emotional issues like stress. A doctor can help to determine what exactly is causing the delay, it is important that see a doctor if you see the following symptoms; unusually heavy bleeding, fever, severe pain, nausea and vomiting and bleeding that lasts longer than seven days.

Is having sex without a condom with my girl unhygienic during her periods? Can she get pregnant? Will the period blood affect me?

Hey Bob, it is not medically unhygienic, if you are concerned about the sheets however, you may need to put something underneath to limit the mess. If both of you are comfortable having sex during this time then there is nothing wrong with having it without a condom. Infact, sex can be a great way to relieve period pain for your partner. There is a small chance that your partner could get pregnant if your have unprotected sex and this is greatly dependent on the length of her cycle. The chance however is really small. The period blood has no effect unless your partner has a Sexually Transmitted Infection in which case you maybe at a risk of getting the infection. Check out this article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/menstruation-myths-busted 

Hey, it may take upto 12 months to get pregnant. If you have beet trying to get pregnant for longer than 12 months it is important you visit a Specialist Gynecologist who may conduct tests and further advice. Check out the following article for more information;- 

https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/menstruation

https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts

Hey Jennie, you can use soap to wash between your legs and your outer labia, but it’s not a good idea to use it to wash inside your vagina. Using soap is likely to upset the natural balance of bacteria, which may cause infections. It can cause itching and irritation and can be a cause of pain during sex. If you choose to use soap, choose a mild baby soap without strong perfumes. Check out this article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/staying-clean

Hello Lukela, first safe days are one of the most unreliable ways to prevent pregnancy, and we really don't recommend it at all. When your safe days are really depends on the length of your cycle. Technically speaking, the first seven days before and after your period, as well as the time of your period, are relatively safe. But, if you have a shorter cycle (shorter than 28 days), or an irregular one, this will vary. Also keep in mind that sperm can survive for up to five days and longer inside the body - so even if you have sex on a 'safe' day, you can still get pregnant, because the sperm survived until your ovulation date. So you see, it's a very inaccurate. And lastly, of course this won't protect you from STDs. Only condoms will. 

Hi Juliet, from a purely medical point of view, sex during menstruation is totally fine. It even has a lot of benefits for both partners including helping with the period pains. Check out the following article for more information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/sex-during-your-period-top-five-facts

Hey Mercy, most girls begin to experience their periods between the ages of nine to sixteen. For most girls, this happens around the age of 12. It is important that you see a Specialist Gynecologist for further advice. Check out the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/menstruation

Dear Acheni, safe days are one of the most unreliable ways to prevent pregnancy, and we really don't recommend it at all. When your safe days are really depends on the length of your cycle. Technically speaking, the first seven days before and after your period, as well as the time of your period, are relatively safe. But, if you have a shorter cycle (shorter than 28 days), or an irregular one, this will vary. Also keep in mind that sperm can survive for up to five days and longer inside the body- so even if you have sex on a 'safe' day, you can still get pregnant, because the sperm survived until your ovulation date. So you see, it's a very inaccurate. And lastly, of course this won't protect you from STDs. Only condoms will. So we really recommend a more reliable method. Check out this article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/types-of-birth-control/safe-days-pros-and-cons  

Hello Dina, there is nothing wrong with having sex during once periods if both partners are comfortable with this. There is however, a small chance that one could get pregnant. Check out the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/sex-during-your-period-top-five-facts

Hi Muteteli, missed or late periods happen for many reasons other than pregnancy. Common causes can range from hormonal imbalances, stress, extreme exercises, change in environment, drastic change in body weight, use of birth control system among others. If this has been a recent change and continues to happen do visit a health centre for a check up. 

Hey Jacquie, you can get pregnant if you have unprotected sex during your periods. Since sperm can live in the vaginal opening for up to five days after sex, if you have unprotected sex during your period and you ovulate soon after your period, the sperm can fertilise the egg. Check out the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/sex-during-your-period-top-five-facts

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