Spotting Versus Period: What's The Difference?

During your reproductive years, you'll likely experience different kinds of vaginal bleeding. From menstrual periods to intermittent spotting to implantation bleeding, it can be hard to know what's what. However, there are some key indicators that can help you be sure you understand your cycle correctly.

Your reproductive cycle is what allows your body to become pregnant, according to Planned Parenthood. The 2 ovaries each hold a number of eggs, and some of them will mature each month as a result of hormonal changes. Halfway through your cycle, rising hormones will stimulate an ovary to release a fully mature egg, which travels down the fallopian tubes to the uterus. This is called ovulation. If sperm is present and conditions are right, the egg may become fertilized. Rising hormones also cause the lining of the uterus to become thick and spongy, making a cozy spot for the fertilized egg to implant, resulting in a pregnancy. If you don't become pregnant, that thick lining is no longer needed — hormones drop, the lining is shed, and it flows out through the vagina. This is what's called menstruation, or a period.

Girls start menstruating at an average of 12 years old, though anywhere from 8-16 years old is considered normal, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Typically, women ovulate until their ovaries stop producing eggs, which is around 51 years old. This is called menopause, and at this point, pregnancy is no longer possible.

How to tell what kind of bleeding you're experiencing

While menstruation seems straightforward, there are some cases where bleeding is due to other causes, which can lead to confusion. Spotting is a common occurrence between periods, and it can be triggered by a number of factors, according to Healthline. When you bleed lightly or intermittently (usually not enough to soak a pantyliner), it's called spotting. Sometimes this happens right at the start of your period, and other times it can happen between periods. If it's due to your period coming on, you'll probably experience all your usual premenstrual symptoms, like bloating, cramping, or fatigue.

Spotting that happens outside of your normal period could be due to a number of causes (via Healthline). Sometimes, light bleeding can occur at the time of ovulation, when the ovary releases a mature egg. Twenty percent of women who become pregnant will experience spotting in the early days of their pregnancy, sometimes known as implantation bleeding. Starting on birth control pills, switching to a new one, or using an intrauterine device (IUD) can often cause spotting or breakthrough bleeding.

Sometimes, spotting is due to irregularities in the reproductive system (via Healthline). Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can often cause irregular bleeding, as well as uterine fibroids and cervical polyps. Spotting can also be a sign of infections in your vagina or cervix. If you're experiencing spotting and are concerned, talk to your medical provider to determine the cause.