spotting

Spotting Between Periods: What You Can Learn From Your Breakthrough Bleeds

Spotting. It happens. Before your period, after your period, in between periods; sometimes it’s brown, and sometimes it’s pink, but mostly it just ruins your underwear, even though there’s rarely enough to fill a pad.

Yet somehow spotting feels even more indecent than our menstrual bleed, as if we’re making a needless mess. But the female body does nothing without need. And if you know your flow, you can read your spots like tea leaves in a cup.

Spotting vs. Your Period: What’s the Difference?

There are four types of flow: heavy, medium, light, and spotting.

The latter will last a day or two, and can happen at any point in your cycle. You’ll see a minimal amount of blood mixed with other discharge, which is why it varies in color from brown to pink. The blood you see while spotting can come from any part of your reproductive anatomy.   

Period blood, however, comes only from the uterus. It’s mixed with clots and can be all shades of red, although brownish blood at the beginning and end of your period is also common. Your menstrual bleed can last up to seven days, and is accompanied by all sorts of symptoms.

Spotting Before and After Your Period

It’s healthy to experience some light spotting before your period starts, but don’t count this as the first day of your new cycle. Your menstrual flow begins in earnest when actual bleeding is observed.

If you see some brownish spots, consider this your warm-up for the main event, although brown spots could also indicate low progesterone, which occurs when there’s a change to the length of your cycle.

Any delays are normally caused before ovulation takes place. If the egg isn’t released “on schedule” then everything is thrown out of whack. Keep track to make sure irregular bleeds aren’t a regular thing for you.

Spotting after your period is normally leftover uterine lining that didn’t make its way out with the rest of the blood. This happens to me when I’ve been holding onto things I need to let go of, like broken relationships or old habits. Everything that happens in your head is reflected in your reproductive system.

Old tissue can remain in the womb for up to a month, and might even work its way down as your uterus contracts in preparation for your next period.

Why Am I Spotting When I’m Not on My Period?

If spotting happens mid-cycle, it’s also known as breakthrough bleeding.  

If you’ve recently started taking the Pill, or another hormonal contraceptive, you can expect breakthrough bleeding for up to three months as your body adjusts to new hormone levels. It’s also normal for spotting to continue long term with intrauterine devices and the progestogen-only pill.

Spotting can also be triggered around the time of ovulation if estrogen levels drop before progesterone has had a chance to rise. Since estrogen stimulates the endometrium to thicken, its decline can trigger some shedding.

When the egg is released, the follicle containing it can also rupture and bleed. Ovulation spotting lasts around a day and is sometimes accompanied by cramps on one side of the abdomen.

If you’re trying to get pregnant, breakthrough bleeding might actually be implantation bleeding, especially if you also experience lower back pain, cramps, nausea, or sore breasts. This typically happens the week before your period is due, although it’s also believed that some blood can be released as the fertilized egg implants in the uterus.

What Color Are Your Spots?

The color of your blood tends to vary according to the time it has spent inside your body. If it’s brown, it’s old and oxidized, like the leftover spots that drop before or after your period. Dark red blood is also old, but hasn’t had time to oxidize, and dark red spots can be a common occurrence after your period has ended.   

Bright red blood is normally associated with menstruation. But if your breakthrough bleeds are also bright red, this could be a sign of infection, such as gonorrhea or pelvic inflammatory disease.

Pink or orange spots come when blood is mixed with cervical fluid, or other discharge. But if your breakthrough blood is bordering on grey, call the doctor.

When Should I Be Worried?

Spotting, on the whole, is menstrual blood that’s released outside of your “normal” cycle, but it can also be a sign of something serious. Polycystic ovary syndrome and fibroids, for example, can cause mid-cycle bleeding. If you’re concerned, look for accompanying symptoms, such as pain and irregular periods.

If spotting lasts for more than a few days, smells bad, or causes severe cramps, take it as a sign to investigate further. But don’t panic. The subtle interplay between our hormones can always be interrupted by lifestyle changes. Estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate in response to whatever is going on with you. So pop on a pad, and let the spots tell you what you need to know.

Featured image by Núria Estremera
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