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How to Distinguish Between Irregular Periods and Pregnancy

For sexually active women, irregular periods can be an immense source of anxiety. Many will immediately wonder if an abnormal period is a sign of pregnancy - a loaded question if becoming pregnant isn't planned. Other women who look forward to having a family can be alarmed that irregular periods signal a complication with their fertility. In either case, it's important to lessen the burden of anxiety and understand the difference between symptoms.

Taking a pregnancy test is the surest way to find out if you are pregnant

Identifying Irregular Periods

A regular period is defined as a 25 - 31 day cycle from the start of one period to the next, with three to five days of bleeding. Irregular periods are considered anything that diverges from a woman's regular menstrual cycle. However, it is worth noting that what is normal for one woman may be abnormal for another.

Though frequent irregular periods are an indicator that your ovulation schedule is out of sync, it does not mean that you cannot get pregnant at this time. It is also important to note that once a woman is pregnant, menstruation can't occur; however, she may experience implantation spotting, which typically resembles a light period.

Common symptoms of irregular periods are:

  • Late or early periods
  • Shortened or lengthened cycle
  • Cramps
  • Changes in blood flow
  • Spotting
  • Skipped periods

How Can I Tell If It's a Pregnancy?

Early signs of pregnancy can differ for every woman, as do those of severe PMS. Therefore, keep in mind that experiencing the following symptoms does not necessarily mean a woman is pregnant - they can occur from other causes, such as stress or switching birth control. The quickest way to be sure is to take a simple pregnancy test or a blood test.

However, if it's too soon for a home pregnancy test to be reliable, or if you are looking for peace of mind until your doctor's appointment, here are some of the most common symptoms of early pregnancy to look out for:

  • Breast tenderness. Suddenly, your breasts may feel extra tender or sore, perhaps even more than they usually do during menstruation. They can also feel swollen and heavier.

  • Fatigue. Feeling particularly tired or sleepy is one of the most common symptoms of early pregnancy. It may feel like you need to nap frequently.

  • Queasiness. Nausea with or without throwing up can strike during pregnancy. It can happen at any time of day or night, but it is most classically felt in the morning.

  • Food cravings or aversions. Suddenly, you may not be able to stand the smell or taste of foods you once loved, and random cravings may show up on a dime. Luckily, these are temporary.

  • Frequent urination. It's common for women to have to go to the bathroom more often than usual when pregnant.

Other Causes of Irregular Periods

Irregular periods are common in middle-aged women. During that time, they may be caused by hormonal imbalance, sudden weight loss or gain, stress, or over-exercise. Irregular periods can also be the first symptom of perimenopause, which typically begins in a woman's forties.

Also, in rare cases, irregular periods could be a sign of a serious health complication, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), thyroid dysfunction, polyps, or cancer. It is a good idea to see your doctor to rule out any underlying causes.

Treatments for Irregular Periods

If you are experiencing irregular periods, it is not necessary to assume you are pregnant. There are many variables that affect a woman's menstrual cycle. Click on the following link to read about what women can do to effectively treat irregular periods.

Uncommon Symptoms of Irregular Periods

Read on to learn how to recognize when irregular periods may be cause for concern.

Are Migraines a Side Effect of Irregular Periods?

Understand the link between the hormonal changes that occur during perimenopause, irregular periods, and migraines.

Irregular Periods and Heavy Bleeding during Perimenopause

When a woman reaches perimenopause, she will experience irregular periods. Read on to find out what causes heavy bleeding and how can you treat it.

  • BMJ Group. "Menopause: What is it?" Patient Leaflet. 2007
  • Hutchinson, Susan M.D. "The Stages of a Woman's Life: Menstruation, Pregnancy, Nursing, Perimenopause, Menopause". November 2007.
  • Love, Susan M.D. Menopause and Hormone Book. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.