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
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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

Hello Carole, it helps to know when you are fertile or ovulating since this will increase your chances of getting pregnant. Have a look at the following to help you determine when you will be ovulating next using the Ovulation calculator;- https://www.babycenter.com/ovulation-calculator Additionally, have a look at the following article for more tips;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-when-you-cant-seem-to-have-a-baby

What can cause this thing ma, when u av ur period on 15 last month and this month on 10 what could cause the miss up there.... And is not much at all. For my suggestions can contraceptic drug cause it?

Hello Young, the menstrual 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). What you are therefore experiencing is within whats normally expected. However, as you have mentioned, using birth control can affect your period. Some methods can increase bleeding, other can decrease, periods can be longer, shorter even heavier.Hormonal methods are likely to cause spotting and irregular bleeding particularly in the first few months of using the method. Using emergency contraception can also affect ones period, notably the period maybe early or late. 

Hello Peris, so sorry about this. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable, it shouldn't be painful for either partner. A good place to start is to figure out what could be causing the pain or bleeding. Many times the bleeding and the pain are caused by the same reasons. Some of the reasons includes dry sex where penetration happens before the vagina is sufficiently lubricated, the presence of an infection in the vagina, sex position and in some cases the size of the penis. Getting to know the reason for the pain is the first step toward addressing it. It ia also important to talk/communicate about sex before, during and even after to try address the causes of the pain. Have a look at the following article for more tips;- 

https://lovemattersafrica.com/making-love/sex-problems-how-to-overcome-them/sex-hurts-help

https://lovemattersafrica.com/making-love/sex-problems-how-to-overcome-them/burning-while-having-sex

Hi Lizzy, 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. 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 this article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/are-safe-days-safe

Hey Jane, most women begin menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, with an average age of 51. But for some women, menopause comes early. If you're between the ages of 35 and 45 and have missed your period for three months or more, you may be going through menopause earlier than normal and for this reason you should see your doctor. It is also important to note that there are many reasons why you might not get your period besides menopause, such as, stress, pregnancy, illness, change in diet or exercise, response to a medication or contraceptive

My periods are usually very painful but someone says you can have sex to deal with the pain. Is this true, it is healthy to have sex during your menses?

Hi Julie, yes you can have sex during your periods if both you and you partner are okay with it. From a medical point of view, there is nothing wrong with having sex during your periods and yes, it can help to relieve some of that period pain. Have a look at the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/sex-during-your-period-top-five-facts

I use EC as my preferred birth control method and I have noticed it always messes up my cycle dates. I wanted to ask now that it has this effect can it affect a persons fertility?

Hi Leah, first the Emergency contraception pill should not be used as a regular contraception pill. As the name suggests, it should only be used in the case of an emergency. If you then find that you keep having the use EC, it is time to consider a regular birth control method. The e-pill have no known effect on ones fertility, but using it affects a persons next period so that it comes early or late. Have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/types-of-birth-control/emergency-contraception

Hi Jennie, 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 additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/birth-control/types-of-birth-control/safe-days-pros-and-cons

I had my period on the 6th of June and yesterday been 21st of June my period is coming out again please what could be the cause of it? (my circle is 25days) thanks

Hi Blessing, you are experiencing an irregular period and this can be caused by a number of things including hormonal issues, using some birth control methods, excessive exercise, stress among other causes. If this is happening for the first time there is nothing to worry about but if this continues you will then have to consult a healthcare provider.

I had sex on the 4th of June my period suppose to come on the 9th of June but it came on the 6th of June and now its coming again on the 21st of June when it suppose to come on 1st of july. please I don't understand what is happening can you explain to me? Thanks.

Hey Debby, you seem to be experiencing irregular periods. Irregular periods can be caused by a number of things including hormonal issues, using some birth control methods, excessive exercise, stress or in some cases it could be a case of miscounting the days. If this is happening for the first time there is nothing to worry about but if this continues you will need to consult a healthcare provider for a possible check up and further advice. 

Hi. I thank you for this informative piece. You really know your onions. My bother is: I have been having irregular periods since I got to understand my body.. From September 2018,i have consciously monitored my period and realised my cycle has been 26 days on 3 occassions, 23 on two, 17,24,25 and 34 only once. Been in and out of the hospital with different medications for hormonal balancing and infection treatments but up to date, no pregnancy. What to I do? Thanks

Dear Elsa, it may take upto 12 months for one to get pregnant, but after trying for longer that this period it is important to seek medical advice from a specialist.

Having irregular or regular periods does not affect your ability to conceive, this will only happen if there are fertility issues that you may have. It maybe useful to determine when you are most fertile, which is around  or when you are ovulating during the month (this you can determine even with irregular periods) and have sex then to increase your chances of getting pregnant. We wish you all the best. Have a look at the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/before-pregnancy/getting-pregnant-dos-and-donts 

Thanks for the information. I wanted to ask my period cycle is different every month sometimes 28 days 20 and one time it was just 14 days. What does this mean and can it affect my fertility?

Hi Muhanji, it appears you have an irregular period. Sometimes, irregular periods can be caused by some medicines, excessive exercising, having a very low or high body weight or change of environment. Hormone imbalances can also cause irregular periods. This, however, does affect ones fertility. 

Hi Jedidah, in normal circumstances and for different people a cycle will last between 21 and 42 days (3–6 weeks). Is this something that has always happened for you or it started recently? Bleeding in between periods may indicate other underlying issues. Consider seeking medical advice from a health care provider. 

Hey Devinah, some of the early signs of pregnancy include missed period, nausea, vomiting, feeling tired, increased frequency of urination, sensitive breast, fatigue among others. There are test that can detect pregnancy as early as 8 days after intercourse. Do speak to your health care provider for further advice. Additionally, have a look at the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/pregnancy/unsure-about-being-pregnant/am-i-pregnant

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