Period problems in teens are common. They can cause significant disruption and distress to adolescents and their parents but rarely have a significant or medically worrying underlying cause. In this first of a series of articles I’ll try to provide a logical and systematic approach to assessing and managing period problems in teenagers (recognizing that this may often be able to be extrapolated to adults too for those of you who do not only see children).
Eloise is 14. She attends with her father complaining she is tired all the time. When she saw her GP last, they arranged some blood tests – a FBC, haematinics, TFTs and coeliac screen. The notes from the previous consultation are very sparse. It appears that mood (normal) and bowel habit (also normal) were discussed. Eloise’s dad had mentioned she eats a broad range of foods and is not vegetarian or vegan and she eats red meat 2-3 times a week. Her periods were not brought up by the last doctor. One of her aunts has coeliac disease is noted and that is why the GP had organised bloods. Eloise has come in today for her results.
Iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is common in young women. Paediatricians may be much more comfortable assessing dietary intake and encouraging iron supplementation or increasing iron in the diet than they are in talking about periods. 20-30% of all cases of IDA are caused by menorrhagia. Both NICE and the British Society of Gastroenterology advocate a trial of iron for menstruating females with iron deficiency, as long as coeliac disease has been ruled out and there are no red flags for cancer. Prescribing iron and advising Eloise to “eat more steak” isn’t going to address WHY she might have IDA. This could mean that she ends up on long term iron supplements unnecessarily. If she has menorrhagia significant enough to cause anaemia, it is likely to be having an impact on her education and her social life.
Approaching the subject is probably easier than you think, remembering “if you are embarrassed the patient may well think there’s something to be embarrassed about”.
So let’s talk about periods….
First a little bit of nomenclature revision.
Menorrhagia – heavy periods
Dysmenorrhoea – painful periods
Oligomenorrhoea – scanty/sparse/irregular periods
Amenorrhoea – absence of periods (primary: failure to attain menarche by the age of 15 with the development of normal secondary sexual characteristics or failure to attain menarche by 13 with no development of secondary sexual characteristics. Secondary: cessation of menstruation for 3-6 months in someone who has previously had regular periods)
Intermenstrual bleeding (sometimes called metrorrhagia) – irregular and unscheduled bleeding including unexpected bleeding between periods
Menarche – the onset of menstruation (the last stage of female puberty)
The symptoms of problematic periods are not always found in isolation. Menorrhagia and dysmenorrhoea are very common and frequently coexist. It is not uncommon for periods to be irregular, painful and heavy especially in the first few months after menarche. In the UK, the average age of menarche is 12.9 years. The average girl will be in Year 8 at secondary school when she starts her periods. Most women will menstruate every 28 days, though irregular and prolonged cycles are common in early menstrual life.
The average period lasts for 2-7 days and on average 80ml of blood will be lost during the period. In developed countries a number of sanitary products are available. The majority of girls are likely to start off with disposable sanitary towels, though environmental concerns mean period pants and washable pads are gaining popularity. Tampons are often the easiest option for girls who do a lot of sport, especially swimming, and can be used from the onset of menstruation. Menstrual cups have a much greater capacity but can be tricky to get the hang of especially for young teenagers.
Absorbency of different products
What to ask in a history of menorrhagia
Start with an open question (recognising that lots of teenagers are much more comfortable with closed questions and giving specific answers):
“Tell me about your periods…”
If you need to be more specific:
- On average, how long do your periods last for?
- How often do your periods happen?
- Do you think they are heavy?
- Does the bleeding change over the course of the period?
- How often do you have to change your sanitary protection?
- What sort of sanitary products do you use? (Pads or towels? Tampons? Period pants? Other?)
- When did you start your periods?
- Do you leak though your tampons/pads? If so, how often?
- Do you pass clots? If so, how big are they?
- How often do you need to change your pads/tampon at night?
- Do you have to change your sheets/pyjamas?
- Can you manage your period at school? How often do you need to leave lessons to change your sanitary product? Do you ever stay home from school because the bleeding is too heavy?
- Are there activities you enjoy that you’ve had to stop doing because of your periods?
Eloise looks embarrassed and keeps looking at her dad. He is staring firmly at the floor looking as if he wishes it would open up and swallow him. You ask her if she would prefer to talk to you without her dad there and she nods. He takes his newspaper to the waiting area and you reassure him you’ll come and find him in a few minutes.
Eloise tells you she started her periods at 11. They last 5-6 days on average and she has one around every 30-32 days. She uses tampons backed up with period pants as she often leaks. She uses SuperPlus tampons and on the first couple of days needs to change them every 45 minutes or so. This can be very difficult at school. She passes clots the size of grapes for a day or so each month. She has to set an alarm at night to wake her to change her protection every 2 hours but can end up with bloodstained sheets. She has stopped gymnastics and now only swims socially but not competitively. She was dropped from the squad because she wasn’t comfortable training when she had her period – the other girls had laughed when she had leaked during training. Worse still, when at a gala with lots of other teams, blood poured down her leg and she had been jeered by the crowd. She thinks her periods are heavy (heavier than all her friends) but her mum has told her this is normal and to stop making a fuss.
Whilst there is no truly objective “test” for menorrhagia, with this history and the marked iron deficiency anaemia, it is pretty straightforward to assume Eloise has menorrhagia. This is likely to be the cause for her IDA as well as affecting her sport participation, her sleep and her schooling. She had normal thyroid function tests (TFTs) as part of her tiredness workup (though it is worth noting that NICE do not recommend checking TFTs routinely in cases of simple menorrhagia). You might want to ask about other bleeding history like epistaxis, bleeding after dental extraction, family history and to consider testing for von Willebrand’s disease. NICE recommend this is for patients who have had menorrhagia from the start of their menstrual life. Most cases of menorrhagia at this age are, however, idiopathic.
Other factors to consider in your assessment
It is so important that Eloise feels listened to and heard. Her perspective is vital for compliance with any plan you make. You’ve already asked her if she thinks her periods are heavy. Now is a good time to continue to explore her ICE (“ideas, concerns and expectations”) by finding out how worried she is about her periods, whether she thinks they are a problem and if she has any ideas for what might be available to fix the problem.
Family history and past medical history are relevant here too in terms of management options as you might well want to consider the combined pill or tranexamic acid both of which are contraindicated if there is a first degree relative family history of venous thromboembolism or a known prothombotic mutation and the COCP is contraindicated if she has focal migraine. It is important to take into account the thoughts and feelings of Eloise’s parent as well during this assessment but remembering that at aged 14 she is likely to have capacity to make decisions some about her own care and be fully involved in the process.
Management of menorrhagia
The NICE guidelines on heavy menstrual bleeding contain a useful interactive flowchart for managing menorrhagia. The first line according to NICE is a levnorgestrel IUS (e.g. Mirena) but this is not always going to be the best tolerated or most suitable in a young teenager. Pragmatically in teenagers we are much more likely to opt for the second line options of tranexamic acid +/- NSAID or the combined pill.
Tranexamic acid (TXA) may be familiar to people who work in haematology or with major trauma patients as an antifibrinolytic. It is licensed for menorrhagia management to be taken as 1g three times daily for up to four days starting on the first day of the period. There are few contraindications but it cannot be taken if there is a history of VTE and should be used with caution if the patient is on the COCP because both increase thrombotic effect. TXA will reduce menstrual blood loss by up to 50%.
NSAIDs for managing menorrhagia often causes confusion as surely they make people bleed don’t they? It’s worth going back to basic pharmacophysiology and revising how NSAIDs act on prostaglandins. NSAIDs are cyclo-oxygenase inhibitors and cyclo-oxygenase is the enzyme involved in production of prostaglandins. In menorrhagia most women will have increased levels of prostaglandins which, as you might remember, are powerful vasodilators. The local effect of prostaglandin on endometrial blood vessels causes increased bleeding. By reducing the level of prostaglandins using oral NSAIDs the blood loss volume will be reduced by up to 40%. NSAIDs will also have a significant effect on dysmenorrhoea which will frequently coexist with menorrhagia.
The COCP is frequently prescribed for menorrhagia. It is important to be familiar with the UKMEC guidelines when prescribing the COCP. Whilst the licensed regimen for COCP is to take for 21 days with a seven day break, the RCOG FSRH and most menorrhagia guidelines recommend using extended or tailored regimens. This allows for shorter pill free intervals and reduced numbers of bleeding days. Tailored regimens are associated with less frequent bleeds, and in many cases a reduced number of bleeding days. Satisfaction with tailored regimens is high.
Eloise seems delighted that you think her periods might not be something she simply has to “put up with”. As she isn’t sure about her family history you call dad back in and he confirms that he knows of no family history of clotting or bleeding disorders. Eloise has had several dental extractions for orthodontic work and has never bled much after these and has never had epistaxis. Eloise has never had a migraine. Her blood pressure and BMI are normal and after discussions of options you prescribe her the levest COCP using an extended tricyling regimen with a five day break after 63 pills to minimise the number of bleeds she experiences and the volume. You also prescribe oral iron and arrange a repeat haemoglobin and ferritin in 3 months, with follow up consultation in four months time.
Heavy menstrual bleeding: assessment and management (2018, updated 2020) NICE guideline NG88
Goddard, A.F., James, M.W., McIntyre, A.S. and Scott, B.B., 2011. Guidelines for the management of iron deficiency anaemia. Gut, 60(10), pp.1309-1316.
Lethaby A, Augood C, Duckitt K. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for heavy menstrual bleeding. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000400.
Nash, Z., Thwaites, A. and Davies, M., 2020. Tailored regimens for combined hormonal contraceptives. BMJ, 368.