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Menstrual periods - heavy, prolonged, or irregular

Alternative names

Periods - heavy, prolonged, or irregular; Menorrhagia; Menstrual periods - abnormal; Abnormal menstruation; Menstruation - irregular; Irregular menstrual periods


Heavy or prolonged menstrual periods refer to profuse or extended menstrual bleeding. Irregular menstrual periods are those that occur at unusual or unexpected times. Collectively or individually, these may be called abnormal menstrual bleeding.


The menstrual cycle is not the same for every woman. On average, menstrual flow occurs every 28 days and lasts about 4 days. However, there is wide variation in timing and duration that is still considered normal, especially if your periods began within the last two years.

If you soak through a sanitary pad or tampon every hour for 6 consecutive hours, this is considered a very heavy period. A prolonged period is one that lasts longer than 7 days. Irregular periods happen more often than every 21 days or less often than every 35 days.

These variations may be normal and are less concerning than bleeding, pain, or discharge between periods.

Bleeding may be something to worry about if you are over age 50, especially if you have already gone through menopause. The risk of cancer increases with age.

Often, if you are bleeding from the rectum or in your urine, you think it is coming from the vagina . To know for certain, insert a tampon into the vagina to confirm that it's the source of your bleeding.

Common Causes

  • Anovulation (failure of ovaries to produce, mature, or release eggs)
  • Endometrial polyps (the endometrium is the inner lining of the uterus)
  • Endometrial hyperplasia (thickening/build up of the uterine wall) and cancers
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Abnormal thyroid or pituitary function
  • Pregnancy complications -- like miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilized egg implants somewhere other than the uterus)
  • Hormonal changes, such as menopause
  • Changes in birth control pills or estrogens that you take
  • Use of certain drugs like steroids or blood thinners (for example, warfarin or Coumadin)
  • Use of an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control
  • Recent trauma, surgery, or other uterine procedure
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease or other infection
  • Stress, change in diet or exercise routine, recent weight loss or weight gain, travel, or illness

Home Care

Keep a record of your menstrual cycles, including when menstruation begins and ends, how much flow you have (count numbers of pads and tampons used, noting whether they are soaked), and any other symptoms you experience. Tampons should be changed at least twice a day to avoid infection.

Bed rest may be recommended if bleeding is heavy.

Because aspirin may prolong bleeding, it should be avoided. Ibuprofen is usually more effective than aspirin for relieving menstrual cramps .


  • Follow a healthy diet, avoiding fat.
  • If you are trying to lose weight, do so gradually.
  • Change exercise routine slowly. Work your way up over time to more strenuous activities.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor if:

  • You have soaked through a pad or tampon every hour for 6 hours.
  • Your bleeding has lasted longer than one week.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You have severe pain, especially if you also have pain when not menstruating.
  • Your periods have been heavy or prolonged for 3 or more cycles, compared to what is normal for you.
  • You have a fever or abnormal vaginal discharge, especially if it has an odor.
  • You have bleeding after menopause .
  • You have bleeding or spotting between periods.
  • You have nipple discharge, excessive hair growth, deepening voice, unintentional weight loss or gain, or new acne.

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, including a pelvic exam. Your doctor will ask questions like the following to determine the history of this symptom:

  • What is your age?
  • Have your last three menstrual periods been normal in timing and amount for you?
  • How long do your periods usually last?
  • How many days are there usually between your menstrual periods?
  • How did this cycle (and others) differ from your usual menstruation?
  • Have you passed blood clots ?
  • How many days has the bleeding lasted with these different or abnormal menstrual periods?
  • How heavy have they been? How many pads and tampons have you been using per day?
  • When was your last menstrual period?
  • How old were you when had your first menstrual period?
  • Do you use birth control pills? Do you use an IUD for birth control?
  • Do you take an estrogen supplement?
  • Do you take aspirin more than once per week?
  • Do you take Coumadin, heparin, or other anticoagulants?
  • Have you recently given birth, had surgery, or experienced trauma on or near the vagina or uterus?
  • Have you recently had a vaginal or uterine infection?
  • What other symptoms do you have? Abdominal or pelvic pain?
  • Do you have nausea or vomiting?
  • Are you pregnant or could you be pregnant?
  • Have you noticed a growth, lump, or lesion on the genitals?
  • Have you had blood in your stools?
  • Do you bleed easily?

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include:

  • Pap smear (if bleeding is inactive)
  • Endometrial biopsy
  • Pelvic ultrasound
  • Lab tests such as thyroid function tests, CBC, pregnancy test

Ibuprofen or another prostaglandin inhibitor is often prescribed. Ibuprofen is also available in lower dosages (Advil, Nuprin) without prescription.

In some cases of heavy bleeding, dilation and curettage, "D and C", may be required.

If a tumor is found, surgery (a hysterectomy ) will sometimes be needed, but the common "fibroid" tumor ( uterine fibroids ) may stop growing by itself, and surgery may not be needed depending on the amount of bleeding and the response to various treatment attempts. Such tumors often grow slowly and stop growing at menopause , so an operation can be avoided by waiting. However, if there has been rapid growth of the fibroid tumor or if your Pap smear is abnormal, surgery or another type of therapy may be necessary.

If the heavy bleeding is related to hormonal abnormalities, treatment of the specific abnormality will correct the bleeding. Female hormones (birth control pills or progestins) are commonly used to regulate menses.

Update Date: 10/13/2003

Jacqueline A. Hart, M.D., Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma., and Senior Medical Editor, A.D.A.M., Inc. Previously reviewed by Peter Chen, M.D., Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (1/14/2002).

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Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT