From the PMS signs to watch out for to preparing your first period kit, we’ve got you covered 

You never forget your first period – and before that day arrives, it’s an event that can be surrounded by fear and trepidation. But hey, that’s totally normal! And if you or someone you know is approaching or going through puberty, here’s our expert-led guide to everything they – and you – need to know to feel reassured and ready. 

What causes menstruation?

"A menstrual period – commonly known as a 'period' – occurs every month as a result of changing hormones in the body," explains Dr Zahra Ameen, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at the Cadogan Clinic.

"Progesterone and oestrogen cause a build-up of a lining in the womb to prepare for a fertilised egg to attach and start developing. Ovulation occurs when one of the ovaries releases an egg.

"If the egg is not fertilised, the lining of the womb is not needed, so therefore breaks down and bleeds through the vagina. It takes around 28 days for the lining to build up and break down."

Everyone’s cycle can be different, so while the average is to have a period every 28 days, it’s not uncommon for this to fluctuate while your body settles into a regular pattern.

When will I get my first period & what are the signs to look out for?

Known as 'menarche' – from the ancient Greek for 'month' and 'beginning' – it starts as part of puberty, and its arrival is unpredictable to say the least. "Your first period can start anytime from the age of seven to 15, but 12 is often recognised as an average age to have a first period," explains Sarah Priestley Turner, spokesperson for  UK-registered charity fighting against period poverty, Freedom4Girls.

While it’s always good to be prepared and to have suitable menstrual products available, the NHS advises that, as a rough guide, as well as growing underarm and pubic hair, typically, you'll start your periods about two years after your breasts start growing and around a year after getting white vaginal discharge. 

"More immediate signs that they’re about to start include spotting, cramps and/or abdominal discomfort and back pain," explains Dr Ameen.

"Book an appointment with your GP or gynaecologist if you’ve not had a period by 16 years old or if you’re 14 years old and don’t have any other signs of puberty such as breast development," she advises.

What to do when it starts?

"The most important thing is not to get stressed or anxious," says Dr Ameen. "If you feel comfortable, talk to someone you trust like a parent, teacher or maybe a friend who has already started their periods. It’s a completely natural process."

"You may want to change your underwear or use a wipe, but don’t worry if you don’t have these to hand," advises Sarah. If you’re at school, ask a teacher or school nurse who’ll be able to help or stop by the shops if you’re out and about. "It can be as simple as popping a pad into your underwear and carrying on with your day," Sarah adds.

How long will it last?

"Your first period may be very light, and only last a couple of days or it might be heavy," says Sarah. "It may take a while for your period to settle into a regular pattern and once it does it could last for around two to seven days."

How much period blood will I lose & what will it look like?

A lot less than you might think! "While it may look like a lot of blood, girls normally only lose a couple of tablespoons throughout the duration of the period," explains Dr Ameen. "A person’s first few periods are often very light and can vary in colour from pink or red to brown," says Sarah.

What products can I use during my period?

The good news is that there are loads of options in a range of sizes and absorbencies to support you during your period. "Period pads or period pants are great options and can be perfect for both light and heavy flows," suggests Sarah. 

"Reusable pads and pants are widely available and can be easily washed at home and reused for many years. They are a great, more environmentally friendly option.

"When your periods are more established, you may feel interested or ready to use tampons or reusable cups, but what’s right for you is entirely your choice."

The NHS advises changing your menstrual cup or tampon regularly throughout the day every four to six hours to reduce your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which is a rare but life-threatening condition, caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins.

How do I put a tampon in?

Dr Ameen advises that, if you choose to use them, initially it may be difficult to insert a tampon. "With that in mind, start off with a smaller size and use a small amount of lubricant if you need it."

Take a few calming breaths to help the muscles in the vagina to relax and avoid trying it for the first time when you’re in a rush.

What happens if I bleed on my clothes?

First thing is: don’t worry. "It is very easy to clean them," advises Dr Ameen. "If you find that your periods are heavy or causing flooding or clots it may be advisable to have a period kit including a change of underwear or clothes on hand when you’re on your period or your period is due."

"It can be private to you if you want it to be when you’ve started your period, but remember it's also not something you need to hide. Around 50% of the population will have experience of having periods at some point," says Sarah.

Can I still swim & play sports?

"If you feel well enough, there are no issues playing sports," advises Dr Ameen. "Using tampons rather than sanitary pads can often make swimming and exercise more comfortable."

What are the other symptoms to expect?

PMS– premenstrual syndrome – is the term used to describe the emotional and physical symptoms that happen before or during the period. The NHS advises that symptoms can include:

• Mood swings

• Feeling upset, irritable or anxious

• Bloating or tummy pain

• Breast tenderness

• Tiredness or difficulty sleeping

• Headaches

• Spotty skin

• Greasy hair

• Changes in appetite

Regular exercise, eating a healthy, balanced diet (potentially with small meals every two to three hours), seven to eight hours of sleep per night, reducing everyday stress with yoga or meditation, taking pain relief, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol if suitable for you*, and keeping a diary of your symptoms for at least two to three menstrual cycles can be helpful.

If these don’t work for you or if your symptoms are affecting your daily life, book in with your GP who can provide further support.

What can I do about cramps?

"Taking simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if suitable for you*, is usually enough," explains Dr Ameen, with Sarah also advising using a hot water bottle and wearing comfortable clothing for mild pain.

If you’re struggling to cope with symptoms, speak to your GP as they may be able to provide different medication.

"If you find that these mediations still do not help relieve your pain and it’s impacting your quality of life, then you can speak to your doctor about starting the combined oral contraceptive pill which you can take tricyclically (continuously for three months at a time with a one-week break in between)."

How often will I get my period?

"It’s normal for periods to come every 28 days," advises Dr Ameen. "Some people have shorter or longer cycles. Sometimes it can also be normal to have periods every 21-35 days. It may take two to three years for periods to become regular."

"Your first period can be irregular as puberty progresses and your hormones find a rhythm," says Sarah. "You could note your period patterns in a diary or on an app – whatever you find easy to do, accessible and useful."

Will I have periods forever?

"Aside from if you get pregnant, your periods will stop once you go through menopause at an older age, due to declining oestrogen and progesterone levels," explains Dr Ameen. This usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55.

Can I get pregnant?

Simply put: yes. "It’s important to be aware that once you start your periods you will also start to ovulate and or produce eggs," explains Dr Ameen. "In some girls, ovulation can start before the first period."

How do I know if my flow is light, medium or heavy?

"Light periods are described as vaginal spotting," advises Dr Ameen.

The NHS suggests that you may have heavy periods if you:

• Have to change your pad or tampon every one to two hours, or empty your menstrual cup more often than is recommended

• Need to use two types of sanitary products together, like a pad and a tampon

• Have periods lasting more than seven days

• Pass blood clots bigger than about 2.5cm (the size of a 10p coin)

• Bleed through to your bedding or clothes

• Avoid daily activities, like exercise, or take time off school because of your periods

• Often feel tired or short of breath

You can take the NHS heavy period assessment here.

"If you’re concerned, it’s important to speak to a GP or gynaecologist (if you’re going private) so that they can take a clinical history, assess you and maybe carry out a blood test to check your blood count if necessary,"  advises Dr Ameen.

When to reach out for help

"If the usual signs and symptoms of your period are quite severe and extreme, then it’s important to seek further advice from your GP," says Dr Ameen. "It’s important to keep a diary of symptoms over six to twelve months especially if you’re experiencing the below":

• Depression

• Mood swings

• Anger

• Anxiety

• Feelings of being overwhelmed

• Concentration difficulties

• Irritability

• Tension

"If you’re experiencing these symptoms much more severely and it’s impacting your quality of life, work or relationships then you may have a severe form of PMS known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)." This affects a small number of people but can have an impact on your daily activities.

While the exact causes are unknown at the moment, it has been connected to genes and sensitivity to changes in hormones. Your GP will be able to provide you with support and guide you through various treatment options that may help.

How to talk to a young person if they feel uncomfortable about their first period

Honesty is key when talking about this once taboo subject. "It’s important to speak with young people openly and honestly, reassuring them that it’s a natural part of life that most women experience," advises Dr Ameen.

"It’s advisable to start the conversation at an early age so it’s not a complete shock. It’s imperative the child understands that periods mean her body is now able to carry a baby and talk about pregnancy and contraception."

Follow First Period Stories on Instagram for relatable experiences and on TikTok to join the conversation.

Struggling to afford your period kit?

Young people aged 19 and under can get free period products at educational institutions under a government scheme. So if you can’t afford them, or for other reasons including if you’ve forgotten to bring any with you, or unexpectedly come onto your period, you still have options.

Local councils may also be able to provide period products to those who can’t afford them. Check your local council’s website for more information.

If people have donated them, you can find period products at your local food bank.

Alternatively, you can visit charities like Freedom4Girls to donate and help those living in period poverty access free products.

If you can afford to, you can save money in the long term by buying reusable products like menstrual cups and period underwear, which have a higher cost upfront but are cheaper on a cost-per-wear basis.

8 of the best products for a first period

From pads to tampons and period pants, here are eight of our go-tos for a first period kit or starter kit to help you or a loved one feel more period confident.

Shop more great period products in our full range.

Best for fuss-free protection

Try: Thinx Brief Super Black

• Made of relaxed-fit cotton

• Tagless

• Available in three sizes

This washable and reusable everyday underwear has built-in period protection to help keep you feeling fresh, dry, and comfortable. It’s designed to absorb the blood of up to five regular tampons with odour-controlling, leak-protection and moisture-wicking technology. Comfy and made from cosy, tagless cotton, you can simply relax into this new chapter of your life.

Try: FLO x Netflix Sex Education Period-Proof Underwear, Hipster Briefs

• Made of cotton

• Cruelty-free

• Available in five sizes

These reusable and washable period undies are both comfortable and convenient. Created to absorb up to five tampons’ worth of menstrual blood, they’re practical and protective plus, their hiphugger style fits like a dream.

Best for night

Lil-Lets Teens Sanitary Towels

• Size: 10 pads

• Stay-put wings for security and protection

• Fragrance free and no colourants

With wings specially designed for younger girls to use during their first period and the first few years of their periods, these pads are smaller than most night-time sanitary pads but are still very efficient, offering the reassuring protection you’re looking for. Breathable and with a soft cover, they’re unscented to reduce the risk of irritation and have discreet packaging in a pretty drawstring bag if you want to keep your period under wraps for now. 

Try: Bodyform Ultra Towels Goodnight Extra Large Wings

• Size: nine pads

• Extra large wings

These pads with an extra wide front and back and large wings can be a good starter option for heavy flow days and nights. Handy if you’re a little worried about leaks at first and to help you feel more confident before transitioning to more streamlined options.

Best for swimming

Tampax Compak Lites Tampons Applicator

• Size: 18 applicator tampons

• Protective skirt to help avoid leaks

• Free from fragrances and dyes

Free from fragrance and dyes, these discreet, individually wrapped tampons come with a compact plastic applicator and a rounded tip for comfortable insertion. Absorption channels help blood flow directly to the core and a protective skirt helps prevent leaks for extra peace of mind.

Best sustainable product

Boots Menstrual Cup Pre Birth

• Made from 100% medical grade silicone

• Box: recyclable

• Bag: 100% compostable biodegradable

If you’re a little more experienced with period products, you may feel comfortable considering a menstrual cup. Recommended for people under 30 who have not given birth vaginally, this cup’s designed to hold more than three times as much as a tampon for up to eight hours – meaning less fuss and it has less of an impact on your wallet too.

Best for natural pain relief

Boots Hot Water Bottle Extra Soft Fleece

• Super soft cover for extra comfort

For an extra snug treat, look no further than this super soft covered hot water bottle. Partially fill with hot water (up to two thirds capacity or less to prevent it from bursting) and use its heat to help take the edge off cramps and tension.

Try: BeYou Monthly Pain Relief Patch

• Size: Five patches

• Releases over 12 hours

• Super thin and discreet

• Biodegradable

• No artificial colours

• Vegan

Whether you’re at school or on the go, apply one of these discreet little patches before you need them or when pain strikes for cooling relief. They can be worn during the day or before bed, ready for whenever you need a helping hand.

Browse more top period products in our full range.

*Speak to a pharmacist for advice and to check whether a medicine is suitable for you.