Ahh, periods. The monthly bleeding we all know and love. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but plenty of people are familiar with this experience: once a month, if you have a vagina, you’ll release an egg from your fallopian tubes, and if that egg isn’t fertilized, you’ll have your period. This is a regular, routine part of a lot of people’s lives. Sometimes, however, you might experience some light bleeding between your period known as spotting. What’s that all about?

What Exactly is Spotting?

Spotting, also known as breakthrough bleeding or intermenstrual bleeding, is bleeding that occurs outside of your period. Spotting is usually lighter in flow and color than your regular period, even on your lightest days. Spotting is basically your body’s way of getting your attention to tell you something’s up. Spotting can be relatively harmless, but it can also signal some serious stuff is off with your body. If you experience any abnormal bleeding outside of your cycle, contact your doctor. If you call your gynecologist, you can simply ask to speak to a nurse and describe the situation. They can consult you from there and determine if the spotting is serious enough to come in for a check-up. 

What causes Spotting?

Spotting can be caused by a number of issues from hormone changes to stress to sexually transmitted infections. Spotting can be caused by ovulation or changes in your hormone levels. Some people spot a bit during ovulation due to your hormones adjusting. This usually isn’t dangerous, it’s just a reaction to your hormone levels shifting throughout your cycle. 

Speaking of shifting hormones, you might also experience some breakthrough bleeding due to hormonal birth control. If you take the pill, use Nuvaring, the patch, or the implant, or even a hormonal IUD (these all work using varying amounts of estrogen and progestin), you might experience spotting when first starting or stopping any of these birth control methods. Additionally, if you take the birth control pill and usually have a period week if you ever skip your period week and start your next pack of pills a week early, you might also experience some spotting. This is because of those changing hormone levels. 

Your “period” on the pill isn’t actually a period because you’re not ovulating, it’s actually a withdrawal bleed from the steady dose of hormones your body gets from the pill. Your body is at a certain point in its cycle with the pill before your “period” week, so if you start your next pack a week earlier than you usually do, it’s possible you could spot a little. This is also usually harmless, but call your doctor just to confirm. You can also experience breakthrough bleeding as you’re entering menopause. There are a lot of hormonal shifts going on during this time, so spotting can be a common indicator that menopause is approaching.

Extreme stress can cause breakthrough bleeding as well. Whether this stress is mental stress such as anxiety or depression, or stress on your body through exercise, weight loss, or weight gain, this can affect your hormones. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and when this hormone is wacky, it can affect your estrogen and progesterone levels.

Spotting can also occur very early on in pregnancy. Light spotting isn’t a cause for concern, but if you experience heavy bleeding, that could be a sign something is wrong. If you’re pregnant and experience spotting, even if it is light, I’d advise consulting your doctor just to be safe. 

A whole range of infections can also trigger spotting. Sexually transmitted infections, urinary tract infections, polycystic ovary syndrome, and pelvic inflammatory disease are just a few infections that can cause spotting. Because the range of causes is so wide, it’s super important to check with your doctor asap so you can treat the infection before it gets too serious.

Seeing Red After Sex

Some people also experience spotting after sex. It’s common for someone with a vagina to bleed after first-time penis-in-vagina sex, and a lot of people think this is because of the hymen breaking. The hymen is a thin membrane that surrounds the vaginal opening, and the truth is most people break their hymen in childhood riding a bike, or a horse, or doing a toe touch, and some people don’t have a hymen to begin with, so sex has nothing to do with it, but I digress… Bleeding after first-time sex is largely due to the tensing of muscles or lack of lubrication. 

It’s also common for people with vaginas to bleed after sex, even if they regularly have it. This happens when the cervix gets irritated due to particularly rough intercourse of tensing of your muscles. Call your doctor to investigate what might cause this. In general though, a great way to cut down on bleeding after sex is to use lube and make sure you have enough foreplay. The vagina needs time to relax and prepare itself for intercourse. Also, bleeding after sex or painful sex is not normal, so please call your doctor if you experience this because you deserve pain-free, pleasure-filled sex. 

As with any sort of health issue, it’s often hard to tell exactly what the cause of a symptom is. If you experience any sort of spotting, call your doctor. It is likely due to hormones or birth control, or something else that is harmless, but just to be safe, call and check-in. 

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