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Home/Cycle Matters / Reproductive Health

What is Spotting?

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written by Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray is an award-winning writer with more than five years’ experience covering reproductive topics ranging from birth control to planning pregnancy. She is passionate about providing women with accurate information grounded in science they can use to take charge of their own health - while also dispelling myths that exist within the field of women’s health. She holds a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Ireland.

Medically reviewed by Jack Pearson, Medical Affairs Manager at Natural Cycles

Jack Pearson

Dr. Jack Pearson is a previously HCPC registered Embryologist with a PhD in reproductive medicine. Prior to joining Natural Cycles leading Medical Affairs, he worked for more than 10 years in a clinical setting working at some of the busiest fertility clinics in the UK. Today he spends most of his time working with experts at the world’s leading institutions to carry out important research with the vision to further the field of female health. He earned his PhD from the University of Sheffield specializing in Sperm Metabolism and currently lives in London.

You may have heard of spotting or have experienced bleeding between periods yourself and wondered why it happens, and if it’s normal. Today we’re going to take a closer look at this type of vaginal bleeding, and we’re going to walk you through the differences between periods and spotting. We’ll also look at the various causes of spotting, and how tracking your cycle can unlock hidden knowledge about your fertility.

Spotting is a type of bleeding that’s a bit different from a period. We’ll take a look at what makes spotting different, but first, it’s important to highlight that if you experience any kind of abnormal bleeding, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare professional. 

Spotting vs period

There are some key differences between spotting and menstrual bleeding. Of course, all our menstrual cycles are different, but below we’ve outlined the main differences when it comes to spotting vs period. 

Menstruation explained

Regular cycle length is considered to be between 21 and 35 days in length. During each cycle, the lining of the uterus becomes thick as our body prepares for pregnancy. If that doesn’t happen, then the uterus sheds its lining, causing a period and the start of a new cycle. 

How to identify menstrual bleeding:

  • Regularity: We’re all different, and while some of us may have a cycle that’s like clockwork, others may notice more irregularities. That said, period bleeding should be somewhat routine.
  • Bleeding pattern: It’s common to experience light bleeding at the beginning of our periods, a few heavy days in the middle, and then lighter bleeding again towards the end - this may vary from person to person but as a rough guide you should see a pattern in your period bleeding.
  • Days without bleeding: A regular cycle is also characterized by days when there is no bleeding at all. 
  • Other symptoms: In the days leading up to your period it’s usual to experience PMS (premenstrual syndrome), this is caused by a change in hormones. Common symptoms include breast tenderness and headaches. It’s also usual to have period cramps as the uterus lining sheds. These symptoms can be a clear indicator you’re on your period or that your period is coming soon.
  • The color of blood: Period bleeding is usually bright red in color. However, menstrual blood can also be brown at the start and end of the period. With a menstrual bleed, it’s also pretty common to have period clotting or heavier bleeding.

Spotting explained

Spotting is often a normal part of a healthy cycle. There are many reasons for spotting to happen, for many of us it’s a routine part of any cycle, for others, it might be an indication of something more serious. 

How to identify spotting: 

  • Irregular bleeding: Unlike most menstrual periods, spotting can be quite sporadic. You may start spotting, have a day with no bleeding and then spot again. Some of us may experience spotting on and off throughout our cycles. 
  • Linked to key stages in the cycle: Some of us will experience spotting around the time of ovulation due to the change in hormone levels. 
  • Change in color: Some women find they spot brown blood and that the texture of their spotting is different from other menstrual bleeding.
  • Birth control: Hormonal methods of contraception can also cause spotting. Switching between birth control methods can often affect spotting while the body adjusts to different levels of hormones. 

Withdrawal bleeding and breakthrough bleeding

If you’re taking hormonal contraception such as the birth control pill, you may still have a routine bleed, but this is not the same as a regular period, this is a type of spotting known as a withdrawal bleed. Although it may happen at roughly the same time each month, it’s not caused by the hormones of the menstrual cycle. Instead, withdrawal bleeding happens due to the dip in the synthetic hormone levels that happen when you take a break between pill packets (or take placebo birth control pills).

If you’re using another hormonal method, you may only notice this type of bleeding when you stop using hormonal contraception.

Other forms of birth control may stop periods altogether, such as the birth control shot or the implant. However, some people may still experience spotting while using this method. Unexpected bleeding while you’re on hormonal contraception is known as breakthrough bleeding. While it doesn’t affect everyone it’s a common side effect of some methods. 

What is spotting in pregnancy?

Bleeding during pregnancy can be alarming but it’s actually not that unusual. While light bleeding doesn’t always mean something is wrong, it also shouldn’t be ignored. If experienced within the first 12 weeks, vaginal spotting can be an indication of miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy (when the fetus forms in the fallopian tubes), so it’s important you consult your gynecologist if you experience spotting or have concerns. Many do experience spotting in the first 12 weeks and go on to have healthy pregnancies.

In early pregnancy, there is sometimes a light spotting around the time you might usually get your period - this is known as ‘implantation bleeding’. This happens when the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall and comes into contact with the blood cells. Implantation bleeding generally only lasts for one to three days and will be much lighter than a normal period. At this point it may be too early to test positive for pregnancy, but you can take a test from the first day of your missed period. 

One peer-reviewed study looking at 4,539 women found that while it was common to experience some form of spotting in early pregnancy, heavier bleeding tended to be more common in pregnancies that ended in miscarriage. 

Later in pregnancy, spotting can occur for several reasons. Changes in the cervix can cause bleeding and might be noticeable after sex. Vaginal infections can also cause spotting and a midwife or doctor can help prescribe treatment. There is also something called ‘a show’ which is when mucus that has been in the cervix during pregnancy comes away, signaling that labor is about to begin. This can happen in the days leading up to contractions starting, or during labor.

In summary, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you experience any kind of spotting during pregnancy. However, vaginal bleeding during pregnancy isn’t always linked to pregnancy loss.

Spotting and puberty 

When our bodies reach reproductive age, the hormones that regulate the cycle come into play. It’s not unusual to experience irregular bleeding or spotting around puberty, but this should become more regular after puberty and any unexplained vaginal bleeding should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Menopausal spotting

Just as spotting is usual during our early reproductive years, spotting around the time of menopause is fairly common. This also is due to the changes in hormone levels that regulate the cycle. Because of the disruption of hormones, you may experience bleeding at different times in your cycle and the amount of bleeding may vary as well. As well as irregular bleeding, other symptoms of menopause include hot flashes, night sweats and mood changes.

If you experience very heavy and/or lengthy bleeding during menopause you should speak to your doctor, the same goes for bleeding between periods. Any bleeding that happens after menopause should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

Spotting and medical conditions

Certain conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can cause bleeding between periods. Look out for other symptoms such as lower abdominal pain and discomfort when you pee. 

You may also experience more irregular bleeding if you have a condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or another hormonal imbalance. If you have concerns or are worried irregular bleeding may be caused by such a condition it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider.

Spotting after sex

Bleeding after sex can be alarming, but there are a number of reasons it can happen. Spotting after sex can be a sign of infections, inflammation, or polyps (non-cancerous growths in the uterine lining), as well as other conditions. Vaginal dryness can also cause bleeding after sex - using lubricants can help with this and reduce spotting after sex. 

If you experience pain during sex, it’s important you stop and tell your partner. Continuing to have sex when you don’t enjoy it can put you off it in the future, furthermore, it may be a sign that something is wrong, so it’s important not to power through.

Other types of vaginal discharge 

Not everything that comes out of the vagina is blood. You may notice changes in cervical discharge throughout your cycle. This can change in color and abundance in the days before ovulation occurs, as this is when you’re most fertile. Other types of unusual discharge can be symptoms of infections or other medical conditions. Read up on our post on vaginal discharge colors to learn what to look out for.

Tracking your cycle 

While bleeding between periods can be a perfectly healthy part of the menstrual cycle, we recommend that you talk to a healthcare professional about any unexplained spotting. Regular cervical screening is also a good way to help make sure spotting is not a symptom of anything more serious.

If you keep track of the patterns in your unique cycle you are more likely to notice both consistencies and changes in your routine. This includes bleeding between periods, anovulatory cycles, PMS symptoms and so much more. Thousands of women use Natural Cycles to prevent or plan pregnancy, with the welcome side effect of learning more about their bodies along the way.

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