A fairly common mistake that women make is assuming that every bleeding episode they have is a period. And since most of us have been raised to believe that a normal cycle length is 28 days, every aberration from that length is interpreted as either too early or too late. No wonder cycles often seem crazy-making.

In addition, it’s very possible that at some point in your life, you will indeed experience unusual or abnormal bleeding, which is essentially any bleeding that is different from a true menstrual period. By definition, a period is the bleeding that occurs about two weeks after ovulation.

In order to understand unusual bleeding, you should know what normal is as a point of reference: Cycles are normally between 21-35 days with periods averaging 2 to 7 days. And normal menses typically follow a pattern of either starting light, then getting heavier then lighter again, or starting heavy and then getting lighter. In addition, it’s normal for periods to be accompanied by symptoms such as premenstrual breast tenderness, mild cramps or a mild low backache.

Abnormal bleeding, on the other hand, is often very light, brown or even black. It doesn’t follow the pattern above of tapering off from heavier to lighter, but is instead usually the same day after day. Most unusual bleeding episodes have hormonal causes (such as PCOS) but some may be organic (such as fibroids).

If your bleeding doesn’t flow in a similar crescendo-decrescendo pattern described above, I would encourage you to see a clinician. You should be aware, though, that it’s very possible that your doctor will want to prescribe the Pill to “regulate” your cycles, but this only treats the symptoms, and does nothing to alleviate the underlying cause! And if you are going to try to get pregnant, you will definitely want to address the cause of the unusual bleeding.

In the end, a woman’s menstrual cycle is a direct reflection of her health, so learning how to read it’s various signs and symptoms is not only interesting, but incredibly empowering.