OB-GYNs debunk 13 common myths about menstruation

  • OB-GYNs Dr. Wendy Goodall McDonald and Dr. Kiarra King debunk 13 myths about menstruation.
  • They talk about how severe pain isn’t normal and why some people can skip their period.
  • They also talk about menstrual cup sizes and how to make sure yours fits.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Dr. Wendy Goodall McDonald: “You shouldn’t swim in the ocean because a shark might smell you.

Dr. Kiarra King: I wanna do, like, [sings “Jaws” theme]. [laughing]

“PMS is made up.”

Goodall McDonald: Hm. Myth!

“Tampons can ‘get lost’ in the vagina.”

King: That is a complete and utter myth. The vagina’s not that big. It can do lots of magical things, but it’s not that big.

Goodall McDonald: I’m Dr. Wendy Goodall McDonald. I’m a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, and I specialize in caring for humans with vaginas.

King: I am Dr. Kiarra King. I’m a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist in the Chicagoland area, and I see women throughout all of their reproductive stages, from adolescence through menopause.

Goodall McDonald: And today we will be debunking myths about periods.

King: Myths from social media.

Goodall McDonald: “Periods should always last a week.”

King: A normal period can last anywhere between two and seven days, so if someone has a five-day period, that’s OK. If someone has a two-day period, that’s OK. If someone has a six-day period, that’s OK. It’s all within the realm of normal. If we’re getting past that seven-day mark, if you’re going into eight, nine, 10 days, two weeks of full bleeding, that can be abnormal.

Goodall McDonald: “Tampons can ‘get lost’ in the vagina.

King: That is a complete and utter myth. The top of the vagina is literally almost like — we call it an apex, but there’s, like, a dome-shaped space, almost, where the cervix kind of hangs down into that space, but that’s it. It can’t penetrate that tissue. It can’t get lost inside of your abdomen.

Goodall McDonald: Occasionally, a person will come in saying that their tampon is lost, and they don’t see it, and I don’t see it. Well, you probably took it out, or it fell out.

King: Or it will be there, kind of tucked up in a ball behind the cervix, but it can’t get lost inside the vagina. The vagina’s not that big.

“PMS is made up.”

Goodall McDonald: Hm. Myth! [laughs]

King: Who is saying this? It is not a person with a vagina saying this. It can’t be.

Goodall McDonald: PMS is very real. It stands for premenstrual syndrome. It encompasses both physical and emotional symptoms related to the period. Often the symptoms will arise anywhere from 10 to 12 days prior to the period. Depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, just feeling not yourself, or cramping, headaches, body aches. Very real.

King: And some women even have something called PMDD, which almost takes some of those mood changes to kind of the next level.

Goodall McDonald: Regular exercise has been shown to improve PMS symptoms. Birth control sometimes can help. Sometimes it can make it worse. Sometimes people can take supplements or increase their plant-based component of their diet, decrease their simple sugars.

King: It’s so important to acknowledge that these symptoms are real so that people don’t then feel like there’s something wrong with them for having symptoms that are physiologically occurring in their body.

Goodall McDonald: “Severe period pain is normal.”

King: Up to about 80% to 90% of women will experience some period pain, but the thing that I look at most in terms of quantifying pain is how it’s impacting someone’s life. Is it causing them to miss school? Are they incapacitated and in bed all day? Are they not able to be present in their lives? That is not normal, to be in such pain that you can no longer function.

Goodall McDonald: Severe period pain can sometimes be relatively genetic. But it can also be due to endometriosis. Fibroids can cause severe pain. You’d be surprised how much menstrual discomfort is also related to constipation or diarrhea. IBS symptoms can kind of coincide with menstrual symptoms, but I would definitely want a person who is having severe pain to see if there’s a possibility for an ultrasound or other evaluation to try to manage that pain better. Our lives are so much more than our cycles, and we should be able to do our regular activities even when it’s happening.

King: “Menstrual cups are one-size-fits-all.”

Goodall McDonald: Menstrual cups are one-size-fits-most.

King: A person that’s looking to use a menstrual cup may want to try one or two sizes to see what fit is going to be best for them. You may have to go within one or two different brands to find a cup size that is right for your cervix and for your vagina.

Goodall McDonald: There usually are at least two to three sizes within any particular company.

King: If you were to give just the gentlest of tugs on that stem, if the menstrual cup moved out of place, it’s probably too big. If you feel that there’s a little bit of resistance and a little bit of give and it doesn’t seem to be moving, then it’s probably a good fit for you.

Goodall McDonald: Myths experts hear the most.

King: “You can’t get pregnant while you’re on your period.”

Goodall McDonald: Partial myth. And the reason why I’m gonna call it a partial myth is because, technically, within a person’s menstrual cycle, you ovulate. If you don’t get pregnant 14 days, give or take, after ovulation, your period comes. The lining sheds, the hotel room is turned over and is ready to receive a pregnancy next month. So, when that period comes and when that lining is shedding, you should not be ovulating, meaning releasing an egg that could be fertilized. However, every person’s bleeding is not necessarily a period.

King: I think a period-tracking app can be very helpful. So if you know really what your menstrual cycle looks like and the timing of it, that can help determine if any other bleeding times are period bleeding or not.

Goodall McDonald: I have no reason to tell a person to not have sex on their period. Again, other than making sure if they’re unprotected that it is their period and that they’re not gonna be surprising themselves in nine months. Take-home message: Irregular bleeding and irregular periods is not birth control.

“Having a regular period is necessary for your health.”

King: I’m gonna take your line, Dr. Wendy. I’m gonna go with partial myth. When young girls start getting their periods, it’s like a vital sign that the brain is sending the proper signal to the ovaries and the ovaries are signaling the uterus to do what it needs to do. So, in that respect, it is normal to have a period every month. And there are a few times where it’s not essential. For example, if someone is on a form of hormonal birth control. With a birth-control pill, you’re technically having a withdrawal bleed and not actually a period that is regulated by the brain and the ovaries and the uterus. With something like an IUD, the lining of the uterus becomes so thin that there’s really not much to shed.

Goodall McDonald: TMI, because I’m a gynecologist: I have not had a period in five years. That’s five. But I have an IUD that is progestin-containing that is keeping my uterus nice and thin, the lining nice and thin, so I haven’t needed this thing. I bought it. I haven’t even used it! Whether or not you have a period has to do more with who you are, as in what stage in your life you’re in, whether or not you’re on hormonal birth control, and a conversation with your healthcare provider. Because either option, whether you have periods or don’t, can be healthy and normal, but it can also be potentially very harmful to your health.

“You shouldn’t swim in the ocean because a shark might smell you.”

King: I wanna do, like, [sings “Jaws” theme]. [laughing] More than likely, a person that is menstruating will have in a tampon or menstrual cup if they’re going swimming, even further decreasing the amount of blood that could potentially be detected. So that’s one thing. Two, sharks kind of hunt for their prey, and humans aren’t typically shark prey. And so when they are looking for their next meal, they are looking for very specific, like, amino acids that they will be able to detect. So it’s probably safe to go out in the water if you’re on your period. But, I mean, are people just swimming with sharks these days, just randomly? I don’t know. I mean, if there’s, like, shark signs, “Beware of shark,” I’m probably just not gonna go out in the water anyway.

“Having a regular period means you’re fertile.”

Goodall McDonald: So, first of all, a period cycle, it’s normal for it to be anywhere from 21 days to 35 days, day one to day one. If they’re shorter than that or longer than that, then that’s not necessarily considered a regular period, and it can bring into question whether or not a person is ovulating, meaning releasing an egg every month. And you need to ovulate and release an egg in order to be “fertile.” But there are other factors that are involved when it comes to fertility. It’s the uterus and whether or not there are structures, polyps, fibroids in there that can impair fertility. What are those tubes doing? What’s that cervix up to? You know, is it healthy? When’s the last time you had a Pap? A regular period that falls in that kind of category that I mentioned is suggestive that a person is fertile, but it’s just not the end of the story.

King: “A person who is menstruating can spoil food by preparing it.”

Goodall McDonald: You wanna eat or not? You know what I’m saying? Like … no. That is a complete myth. Your menstrual flow has nothing to do with whether or not you’re gonna spoil milk or eggs. That’s not a scientific phenomenon, so … So I’m just gonna make my mac and cheese, and I’m keeping it to myself if you believe that.

King: Dough will still rise. Canned goods will not spoil. Mayonnaise will not curdle.

Goodall McDonald: And period blood, it’s not unclean. There’s nothing about it that emits anything that can spoil things or that is unclean or unsafe.

King: Myths from pop culture.

Goodall McDonald: “People’s periods will ‘sync up’ if they spend enough time together.”

King: I had to actually do a little investigation on this one, because my initial thought was that this was true. There was some research done back in the ’70s by a woman named Martha McClintock. And she did a small study of about 135 women and found some evidence that when women are around each other in close settings, let’s say a dorm, they’re on sports teams together, that their periods were starting to sync up. And it was actually dubbed the McClintock effect. Subsequent research has been done, and one was using a period-tracking app that had about 1,500 women in the study. Another was of about 180-plus or so women in China that lived in a dorm together. And what those larger studies found was that there did not seem to be a syncing up of cycles based on the proximity that you were to these other people. So I think there seems to be some anecdotal evidence, you know, moms and daughters, sisters, they’re living together, but it seems that it’s more coincidental that their periods just happened to be occurring at the same time, versus syncing up due to maybe hormonally mediated causes.

Goodall McDonald: “Periods are dirty.”

King: Periods are not dirty. Menstrual blood is just that: It’s menstrual blood. It’s a physiologic process. It signals that a pregnancy didn’t happen, and it’s getting ready to make that uterus a welcome home again, potentially. And so that blood has to go somewhere. But it’s not inherently dirty. Blood can potentially carry pathogens, viruses, so we certainly want to be cautious in terms of how it’s handled.

Goodall McDonald: We have to manage it just like we would manage our armpits, our underarms, or our breath and our teeth to keep ourselves healthy, but not because it’s dirty.

King: People often feel the need to go on overdrive when it comes to vulvar and vaginal hygiene. And it’s really not necessary. There’s absolutely no need to douche. That could potentially disrupt the normal vaginal pH, which can make you more prone to infection. So I would generally recommend just a mild soap and water, externally on the vulva.

Goodall McDonald: Yeah, I usually say if it’s not hair-bearing, leave it alone.

King: “Only women get periods.”

Goodall McDonald: Humans with uteruses and vaginas get periods. But that could be a trans man. That could be a person who is nonbinary. Blood comes out of uteruses. Cyclically, if a person is off of birth control and within reproductive age, and maybe not cyclically, if a person is on hormonal birth control or has had their uterus removed. But any human with a uterus and a vagina can have a period.

King: A period is a physiologic function. It does not define womanhood by any means.

Goodall McDonald: The biggest takeaway I would like for anyone watching this video to come away with is that our periods are healthy. Our periods are normal. It’s OK to not have a period, if you choose to not have a period and you are navigating that space with a healthcare provider.

King: You came here for this information, and that is probably the biggest step that you could have taken. If you ever had concerns, getting this education is going to empower you. Keep learning about your body, keep desiring to understand more about your body, because, ultimately, you know your body better than anyone else. And so knowing your body, being educated on how it functions, is going to allow you to navigate and understand your body going forward.