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

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

My periods are always irregular they unexpectedly all the time. What causes them to do that? What can I do to try have them become breakthrough?

Hi Phillis, having irregular periods is very common. The causes can range from something insignificant to something that requires treatment. Some of the most common causes of irregular periods include the following:

  • Eating disorders
  • Excessive weight gain or weight loss
  • Stress or emotional issues
  • Hormonal problems
  • Travel or change of environment
  • Over-exercising
  • Drugs like birth-control pills can affect the frequency and / or intensity of menstruation and 
  • Breastfeeding

If this is happening consistently, I suggest you talk to a healthcare provider who will help identify what is causing the irregular periods and help you find an appropriate solution. 

Hey Joy, the right to have sex to increase chances of getting pregnant is to have sex around the time your are ovulating since this is time one is most fertile. Have a look at the following article for more tips;- 

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

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

Hello Kezia, 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. Have a look at the following article for more information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/are-safe-days-safe

Hey Julia, yes you can have a missed or delayed period without having sex. There are a number of reasons that can cause this including, stress, change of environment, increase or decrease in weight, hormonal issues and some diseases like Diabetes. It is important to see a Doctor if this is something that happens frequently. 

Hi Simo, safe days are one of the most unreliable ways to prevent pregnancy. 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 which means even if you have sex on a 'safe' day, you can still get pregnant, because the sperm survived until your ovulation date. Lastly, of course this won't protect you from STDs. Only condoms will. So we really recommend a more reliable method. Have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/are-safe-days-safe

Hey Triza, periods are expected to start between the ages of nine and sixteen years. You are still within this age bracket. Everyone is different and for this reason it will start at different times for different girls. Have a look at the following article for more information on puberty in girls;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/puberty-in-girls

Yes Fridah, you can get pregnant. Having unprotected sex exposes you to the risk of getting pregnant including the risk of getting infected with a Sexually Transmitted Infections.  Using a condom each time you have sex helps to prevent both unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/types-of-birth-control/condom

Please am 43 and I menstrate sometime for 3days and at times for two days,it keeps fluntating.how do I correct it,I really need to have a child of my own

Dear Fatimah, there is nothing wrong having your periods for two or three days. Most women experience their periods for two to seven days and this is normal. The number of days you have your periods has nothing to do with your ability to conceive. Perhaps you may need to check your menstrual cycle and understand your ovulation days. Check the article above more information.  In addition you may consider seeking advice and guidance from a gynecologist. Additionally, have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts

Hi Carole, it depends with what could be causing the irregular period, for instance, if it is caused by the use of a birth control method once you stop it should regularize or if one is involved in sporty activities once they stop the period goes back to regular. It is important to get to know what could be causing your period to be irregular. One can still get pregnant with an irregular period, it may just be alittle challenging to know when one is ovulating. Even, with a regular period, it can still take upto 12 months for one to get pregnant. If one has been trying for longer than 12 months it is important to seek the services of a specialist for further advice. Have a look at the following articles for more information;- 

https://www.babycenter.com/ovulation-calculator

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

Hi Sanctity, you can get pregnant anytime you have unprotected sex. If you do not wish to get pregnant it is important for you consider using birth control. You can also consider getting a pregnancy test after 14 days since you had unprotected sex or after you miss your next period. Have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/choosing-the-right-birth-control/how-to-choose

My last period came 1st of this month and ended on 4th.I had sex on 12th of same month. so when is likely my ovulation starts and is it possible i get pregnant because im actually craving to get pregnant.

Hi Jennie, missed or late periods happen for many reasons other than pregnancy. Common causes can range from hormonal imbalances, change in environment, change in diet, exercising among others. If this is something that is happening frequently it may be important to consult your health provider. 

Hey Emmy, every vagina has a natural smell. That's absolutely normal and nothing to worry about. Slight changes in a vagina's scent are normal throughout your cycle or after you had sex.  You shouldn't try to mask the smell with douching or vaginal deodorants or harsh soaps – that can cause irritation and possibly lead to infection. A drastic change in odour can be a sign of something abnormal though. For example, fishy smells can be a sign of infection. If you notice other changes alongside the smell, such as itching or burning, you should get in touch with a healthcare professional. Check out the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/8-tips-to-keep-your-vagina-happy-and-healthy

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