Difference Between a Period and Spotting

Written by Proof

Difference between spotting and period
Photography by Ashley Armitage 

The menstrual cycle tends to differ from person to person, but it is generally counted from the first day of one period to the first day of the next. Menstrual flow can occur every 21 to 35 days and generally lasts 3-7 days. 

While the heaviest part of the menstrual flow typically lasts between two and seven days, it is common to experience spotting in between the prominent part of menstrual flow. Spotting is separate from the menstrual flow itself and can be caused by a number of factors. 

What is spotting?

It’s important to be able to identify the difference between a menstrual period and other types of vaginal bleeding. Spotting is any kind of light, irregular bleeding outside of the menstrual cycle. 

While unexplained spotting is often irregular, it is common to notice spotting that is brought on by events in the menstrual cycle, such as ovulation. There are many reasons one might experience spotting in between periods, most of which are no cause for concern.

What does spotting look like?

Spotting gets its name from the physical appearance of the discharge. It usually comes in the form of small spots of red or brown liquid on your underwear. A big difference between spotting and period blood is that spotting is typically much lighter in volume, and often has a darker color than menstrual blood. Spotting is usually so light that you can simply switch to your period panties or wear a thin liner when you notice it.  

What is the difference between spotting and a period?

The appearance of spotting discharge is very similar to the appearance of menstrual blood, so it can be easy to confuse the two. Texturally, menstrual blood tends to be thicker and heavier, while spotting is light. Spotting usually doesn’t cause any physical discomfort or pain, while your period often comes with cramps, bloating, and feeling under the weather.

Menstrual blood and spotting blood also come from different parts of the body. Menstrual blood comes out cyclically when the uterus sheds its lining. On the other hand, spotting may come from the upper or lower reproductive tract, such as the cervix or the vagina.

Why am I spotting after my period ends - what are the causes?

Spotting is common among all people who have periods and it can be caused by a number of things:

  • You may experience spotting if you have just started taking or changed your hormonal contraceptives or have recently taken the morning-after pill.

  • Spotting also occurs following the implantation of an IUD (intrauterine device) or a medical exam.

  • Spotting is common among those who have recently contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or have a pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

  • External causes for spotting include a change in medication or emotional stress, which affects the body’s hormone levels.
  • Pregnancy-related causes for spotting may include ovulation, implantation bleeding, miscarriage, breastfeeding and ectopic pregnancy. During pregnancy, spotting often happens at the time when the person would otherwise have had their period.

  • Uterine fibroids or polyps, which are benign tumors on the uterus, can cause light spotting between periods.

  • Spotting can also be caused by menopause, perimenopause and health issues such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.

  • You may experience spotting if you have recently had rough intercourse, which may have slightly damaged the vaginal tissues.

This list is not exhaustive, and it does not represent every person who has experienced any of these symptoms. If you’re in doubt, be sure to track your cycle so you’re aware of any changes that might happen. 

How long does spotting last?

Because spotting is so irregular and can be caused by so many variables, it is difficult to identify exactly how long it lasts. Typically, though, spotting can be anything from a one-time thing to minor bleeding for up to seven days.

I’m seeing brown discharge after my period ends - what is it, and why?

When we feel the sensation that something is being discharged from our bodies, we usually expect to see a red liquid. We may then be surprised to discover that the discharge is, in fact, brown. Brown discharge is usually nothing to be concerned about and is typically just old blood. When we notice brown liquid coming out, it’s usually just the vagina cleaning itself out in preparation for the menstrual flow to begin.

When should I see a doctor for spotting?

It’s not uncommon to panic somewhat when we notice something unusual with our bodies. In most cases, light spotting is nothing to worry about, but if you are prone to feeling anxious about your health, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor sooner rather than later.

You should see a doctor if your spotting is accompanied by:

  • More noticeable abdominal pain or cramping than usual
  • Irregular periods
  • Heavy periods with more blood clots than you’d usually expect
  • A burning sensation when you urinate
  • Any unusual vaginal discharge 
  • If you think you may be pregnant

Your doctor will most likely want to know how long this has been happening, how regular it is, how long the spotting lasts, how heavy the spotting is and if it may have been triggered by something external such as rough intercourse. 

While it may not be possible to pre-empt or prevent spotting in between periods, there are certain measures you can take in order to reduce your likelihood of spotting. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle and ensuring that you remain at a healthy weight, you can give yourself the best chance of avoiding spotting. Exercise is also essential when it comes to maintaining a good balance- not only does it help to keep your body in a healthy state, it can also help to reduce stress, which may cause a hormonal imbalance and consequent spotting. 

It is completely understandable if you experience stress and anxiety after noticing anything unusual within your reproductive system. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, try not to assume that the worst-case scenario is about to occur. Track your menstruation and physical sensations, and if in doubt, talk to a medical professional.