Even if you can’t count on your period to arrive at the same time each month, it’s probably pretty consistent when it comes to color, with a few exceptions. “We’re very complicated as women, and a lot of things can make your period change,” says Karen Carcamo, M.D., M.P.H., an ob-gyn with the Institute for Women’s Health in San Antonio.
Pay attention to those changes. “If it’s changed from your baseline, that’s probably something you need to tell your doctor,” she says.
Here, explore the many colors of your period—and what each might indicate about what else is going on.
Your period kicks off when your uterine lining sheds, Dr. Carcamo says. Normally, when your flow gets into its groove and is at its heaviest, it will be bright red, which means the lining is shedding normally and the blood is flushing through your system quickly.
The color could veer from bright red to darker red (sometimes close to brown) at the very beginning and very end of your cycle. That doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, Dr. Carcamo says. Rather, the dark color is likely just older blood that has spent a longer amount of time in your body. “It’s because you’re not bleeding as much, so it takes longer for it to fall out on your pad or your tampon,” Dr. Carcamo says. During that time, the blood oxidizes, which makes it darker.
You may be used to seeing light pink blood if you have a very light flow, but it could also mean you’re dealing with low estrogen levels, Dr. Carcamo says. Have you been pushing your exercise routine to the extreme? Those two-a-day HIIT sessions could be why. A small study from Philadelphia researchers found heavy exercise can cause estrogen to diminish. If that sounds like you, you’ll want to get it figured out with your doctor. That’s because even though the light pink blood might not bug you, estrogen deficiency can lead to osteoporosis down the line as well as mood swings, hot flashes, heart issues, dryness down there, and problems conceiving.
Orange-y discharge could be a sign of infection. Emphasis on could since Dr. Carcamo says it varies from woman to woman and there’s no telltale sign whether an STD or STI is in play. Be on the lookout for other symptoms. “A lot of times if it’s foul smelling or you have pain with your period, that could be a sign you have an infection,” Dr. Carcamo says.
Gray-ish discharge could signal an early miscarriage, which happens more often than people realize, Dr. Carcamo says. UC Davis Health estimates 10 to 20 percent of women who find out they’re pregnant will have an early miscarriage, usually within the first 10 weeks. If your period suddenly gets really heavy and grayish or if it seems like you’re passing thick tissue, visit a doctor. You don’t necessarily need to head to the emergency room—ERs are not great places to get gynecology care, Dr. Carcamo says—but plan to visit your usual ob-gyn ASAP. (Here’s when you should think twice about going to the ER.)
Bottom line: Keep an eye on your period, and if anything seems off, there’s a good chance you’re right, Dr. Carcamo says. Do your ob-gyn a solid and note these changes, paying attention to when your period starts, how long it lasts, and what colors you see. Bring this info to your gyno appointment to get a jump start on figuring out the real issue.