Menstrual bleeding vs. spotting - the facts
Disclaimer: Crimson Conversations content is not written by medical professionals. If you have any health concerns or persistent pain, please visit your GP or gynaecologist.
What is spotting?
Vaginal bleeding between periods is usually very normal and should not be a cause for concern. If the blood flow is light, it is called ‘spotting’ or ‘breakthrough bleeding’. The medical term for bleeding between periods is metrorrhagia. Read on to discover the possible causes of spotting, how to deal with it and when to see a doctor.
The differences between spotting and your period
For a lot of women, spotting is quite common. Because all women’s periods are different, it is useful to distinguish between spotting and a proper period. Some periods begin or end with spotting, and some women bleed more lightly than others. As such, it can be hard to tell the difference.
Menstrual bleeding occurs roughly every 28 days in non-pregnant women. Each month, the uterine lining thickens to prepare for pregnancy. If a woman does not get pregnant, the uterus sheds its lining, causing a monthly period.
Some traits of menstrual bleeding include:
- A regular schedule: While the length of time between periods varies among women, most women experience periods around the same time each month.
- A predictable bleeding pattern: Every woman’s menstrual bleeding follows its own pattern. For many women, a monthly period begins with light spotting, gets heavier for a day or two, and then gets gradually lighter, ending with spotting.
- Time spent not bleeding: Some women with hormonal imbalances or health issues may spot throughout the month. Periods usually last 5-7 days, and never last an entire month.
- Menstrual bleeding is often accompanied by other symptoms: In the week or so before a period, changes in hormones can trigger symptoms, such as breast tenderness and headaches. As the uterus contracts to expel the uterine lining as blood, some women experience cramping that can range from mild to intense.
- Menstrual blood is usually red: The colour can help differentiate a period from spotting, although the blood may be brown at the beginning or end of the period. Some women see large clots or strings of blood with their monthly period, which is less common with spotting.
Before addressing the reasons why spotting may occur, let’s first provide some characteristics that set it apart from menstrual bleeding.
Some characteristics of spotting include:
- Irregular timing: Women may spot for a day, stop bleeding, and start again. Some women experience spotting intermittently throughout the month.
- Associated with predictable menstrual cycle events: Unexplained spotting is often irregular. But spotting can also occur alongside ovulation. Some women experience a day or two of light spotting every month.
- May be associated with injuries or other symptoms: This includes abdominal pain.
- Often a different colour from a woman’s normal menstrual period: Some women spot brown blood. Others find that the blood from spotting is lighter, a different texture, or smells odd.