Periods and fertility in the menstrual cycle

The length of the menstrual cycle varies from woman to woman, but the average is to have periods every 28 days. Regular cycles that are longer or shorter than this, from 23 to 35 days, are normal.

The menstrual cycle is the time from the first day of a woman's period to the day before her next period.

Girls can start their periods anywhere from age 8 upwards, but the average is around 12 years. The average age for the menopause (when periods stop) in this country is 51.

Between the ages of 12 and 52, a woman will have around 480 periods, or fewer if she has any pregnancies.

Read more about starting periods.

What happens during the menstrual cycle?

To understand the menstrual cycle, it helps to know about the reproductive organs inside a woman's body. These are:

The menstrual cycle is controlled by hormones. In each cycle, rising levels of the hormone oestrogen cause the ovary to develop and release an egg (ovulation). The womb lining also starts to thicken.

In the second half of the cycle, the hormone progesterone helps the womb to prepare for implantation of a developing embryo.

The egg travels down the fallopian tubes. If pregnancy doesn't occur, the egg is reabsorbed into the body. Levels of oestrogen and progesterone fall, and the womb lining comes away and leaves the body as a period (the menstrual flow).

The time from the release of an egg to the start of a period is around 10 to 16 days.

Watch an animation about how the menstrual cycle works.

What are periods?

A period is made up of blood and the womb lining. The first day of a woman's period is day 1 of the menstrual cycle.

Periods last around 2 to 7 days, and women lose about 20 to 90ml (about 1 to 5 tablespoons) of blood in a period.

Some women bleed more heavily than this, but help is available if heavy periods are a problem.

Find out about heavy periods.

What happens during ovulation?

Ovulation is the release of an egg from the ovaries. A woman is born with all her eggs.

Once she starts her periods, 1 egg develops and is released during each menstrual cycle.

Pregnancy happens if a man's sperm meet and fertilise the egg. Sperm can survive in the fallopian tubes for up to 7 days after sex.

Occasionally, more than 1 egg is released during ovulation. If more than 1 egg is fertilised it can lead to a multiple pregnancy, such as twins.

A woman can't get pregnant if ovulation doesn't occur. Some methods of hormonal contraception – such as the combined pill, the contraceptive patch and the contraceptive injection – work by stopping ovulation.

When are you most fertile?

Theoretically, there's only a short time when women can get pregnant, and that is the time around ovulation.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when ovulation happens, but in most women it happens around 10 to 16 days before the next period.

Women who have a regular, 28-day cycle are likely to be fertile around day 14 of their menstrual cycle, but this won't apply to women whose cycles are shorter or longer.

It’s possible (although not very likely) to get pregnant soon after your period finishes if you ovulate early or have a short menstrual cycle.

Having sex without penetration

It’s also possible to get pregnant if you have sex without penetration (the penis entering your vagina).

Pregnancy can happen if sperm comes into contact with your vagina if, for example:

The risk of getting pregnant in this way is very low, but it can happen.

Find out more about fertility awareness (natural family planning)

Normal vaginal secretions

Vaginal secretions (sometimes called vaginal discharge) change during the menstrual cycle. Around the time of ovulation, they become thinner and stretchy, a bit like raw egg white.

See your GP if you are concerned about a change in your vaginal discharge.

More information

Read more about trying to get pregnant and infertility.

Page last reviewed: 5 January 2023
Next review due: 5 January 2026