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Vaginal bleeding between periods

Definition

This article discusses vaginal bleeding that occurs between a woman's monthly menstrual periods. Such bleeding may be called "intermenstrual bleeding."

See also:

Alternative Names

Bleeding between periods; Intermenstrual bleeding; Spotting; Metrorrhagia

Considerations

Normal menstrual flow lasts about 4 days (plus or minus 2 - 3 days). It produces a total blood loss of 30 - 80 ml (about 2 - 8 tablespoons), and occurs normally every 28 days (plus or minus 7 days).

Vaginal bleeding that occurs between periods or after menopause can be caused by various problems. Most are benign and treatable. Sometimes vaginal bleeding may be due to cancer or precancer. So any unusual bleeding should be evaluated promptly. The risk of cancer increases to about 10% in women with postmenopausal bleeding.

Make sure that bleeding is coming from the vagina and is not from the rectum or in the urine. Inserting a tampon into the vagina will confirm the vagina, cervix, or uterus as the source of bleeding.

A careful exam by your health care provider is frequently the best way to sort out the source of the bleeding. This exam can be accomplished even while you are bleeding. Do not delay getting an exam just because you are currently bleeding.

Common Causes

  • Uterine fibroids or cervical or uterine polyps
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Inflammation or infection of the cervix (cervicitis)
  • Injury or disease of the vaginal opening (caused by intercourse, infection, polyp, genital warts, ulcer, or varicose veins)
  • IUD use (may cause occasional spotting)
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Miscarriage
  • Other pregnancy complications
  • Vaginal dryness due to lack of estrogen after menopause
  • Stress
  • Stopping and starting birth control pills or estrogens
  • Underactive thyroid (low thyroid function)
  • Use of blood thinners (anticoagulants)
  • Cancer or precancer of the cervix, uterus, or (very rarely) fallopian tube
  • Cervical or endometrial biopsy or other procedures

Home Care

Immediately contact a health care provider if bleeding is very heavy.

Keep track of the number of pads or tampons used over time so that the amount of bleeding can be determined. Uterine blood loss can be estimated by keeping track of how frequently a pad or tampon is soaked and how often one needs to be changed.

Because aspirin may prolong bleeding, it should be avoided, if possible.

Call your health care provider if

Call your health care provider if:

  • You are pregnant
  • There is any unexplained bleeding between periods
  • There is any bleeding after menopause
  • There is heavy bleeding with periods
  • Abnormal bleeding is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, dizziness

What to expect at your health care provider's office

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history. The physical examination with include an emphasis on the pelvic area.

Questions may include:

  • Time pattern
    • When did this bleeding between periods begin?
    • Does it occur consistently, such as every month?
    • When (during the course of a menstrual cycle) does this bleeding begin?
    • How long does the in-between bleeding last?
  • Quality
    • Is the bleeding heavy?
    • How many tampons or pads are required?
    • Do cramps accompany the bleeding?
  • Aggravating factors
    • What makes it worse?
    • Does increased physical activity make the bleeding worse?
    • Does intercourse bring on the bleeding?
    • Is increased stress associated with the bleeding?
  • Relieving factors
    • Does anything relieve or prevent it?
  • Other symptoms
    • What other symptoms do you have?
    • Do you have abdominal pain or cramps?
    • Is there increased bruising elsewhere on the body?
    • Do you have any difficulty, pain, or burning with urination?
    • Is there bloody urine or blood in the stools?
  • Other important information
    • Are you pregnant?
    • Have you had a miscarriage or abortion?
    • Have you had a D and C?
    • Have you ever had an abnormal Pap smear?
    • What medications are you taking? Do you take hormones or supplements?
    • Are you using tampons? What kind? What size?
    • At what age did your periods start?
    • Have you had normal periods without bleeding between in the past?
    • Are you sexually active?
    • Do you have a history of sexually transmitted infection?
    • Are you using birth control? What kind?
    • Have you been injured?
    • Have you received any medical or surgical treatments?

Tests that may be done include:

  • Blood tests to check thyroid and ovarian function
  • Cervical cultures to check for a sexually transmitted infectin
  • Colposcopy and cervical biopsy
  • Endometrial (uterine) biopsy
  • Pap smear
  • Pelvic ultrasound
  • Pregnancy test

References

Lobo RA. Abnormal uterine bleeding: ovulatory and anovulatory dysfunctional uterine bleeding, management of acute and chronic excessive bleeding. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 37.

Bulun SE. The physiology and pathology of the female reproductive axis. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 17.


Review Date: 5/31/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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