Spotting before a period is generally harmless, and there is not always an obvious cause. However, spotting is sometimes an early sign of pregnancy or an indication of hormonal changes in the body.
Spotting is light, irregular bleeding from the vagina that is noticeable but not substantial enough to soak a pad or liner. Spotting is typically brown or dark red, and it does not usually last for longer than 1 or 2 days.
Causes of spotting can include hormonal fluctuations, starting a birth control pill, and perimenopause.
In this article, we explain whether spotting can be a sign of pregnancy and discuss some other possible causes of spotting. We also cover how to tell the difference between spotting and a very light period and when to see a doctor.
Light bleeding or spotting can be an early sign of pregnancy. This spotting is called implantation bleeding because doctors think that it happens when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the lining of the uterus.
Implantation bleeding typically occurs 1–2 weeks after conception, which is often around the time that a person would expect to start their period. Although implantation bleeding is usually lighter than menstrual flow, some women may mistake it for a very light period.
Women who think that they might be pregnant may wish to consult a doctor or take a home pregnancy test.
The birth control pill is a form of hormonal contraception that works by preventing ovulation and making the cervix and uterus less favorable for fertilization. The pills contain synthetic hormones that can also help regulate a person’s menstrual cycle.
When an individual starts taking birth control pills, they may experience some spotting before their period for the first few months. This spotting is known as breakthrough bleeding, and it is a sign that a person’s body is adjusting to the hormones. This bleeding does not mean that the pill is not working.
Spotting may also occur if a person misses a pill or takes a pill later than usual.
Ovulation is when the ovaries release an egg, which travels down a fallopian tube and becomes available for fertilization. This process usually occurs about halfway through a person’s menstrual cycle and can result in spotting.
The hormonal shifts that occur around the time of ovulation can also lead to breast tenderness, increased cervical mucus, and bloating.
Hormone fluctuations can sometimes affect a person’s menstrual cycle and lead to some spotting before their period. This spotting may be more likely to occur when an individual’s menstrual cycle is first becoming established. Some periods may be shorter and lighter than others during this stage.
Sexual intercourse can irritate the delicate tissues of the vagina, which can sometimes cause a small amount of bleeding. If this bleeding occurs regularly, a person may wish to consider using a vaginal lubricant to reduce the risk of tissue trauma during sex.
A person should see a doctor or gynecologist if bleeding after sex becomes heavy or causes concern.
Menopause is the time in a person’s life when they permanently stop having periods and are unable to get pregnant naturally. An individual reaches menopause when they have gone at least 12 months without a period.
Perimenopause is the transition to menopause, and it can last for up to 10 years. During perimenopause, hormone levels may fluctuate randomly, which can lead to menstrual symptoms, such as irregular spotting and changes to the length and heaviness of a person’s period.
Other symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- periods that are heavier or longer than usual
- bleeding after vaginal sex
- vaginal bleeding following menopause
- pain or discomfort during vaginal sex
- unusual vaginal discharge
People with symptoms of cervical cancer should consult a doctor or gynecologist, who can perform a Pap smear to test for abnormal cells in the cervix.
A very light period can sometimes resemble spotting and vice versa. The two factors that can help a person determine whether bleeding is a period or spotting are duration and volume.
A period typically lasts for around 4 days or more whereas spotting only lasts 1 or 2 days. During a period, there is usually enough blood to soak a pad. Menstrual blood is also generally red while spotting blood is often dark red or brown.
Spotting before a period is not usually a cause for concern. A person should talk to a doctor about spotting that lasts more than several months or is causing concern.
It is also best to seek medical advice if any of the following symptoms accompany the spotting:
- an unusual odor
- vaginal irritation and discomfort
- vaginal mucus that contains blood or has an appearance similar to that of cottage cheese
- unexplained fever or fatigue
Women who suspect that they may be pregnant may also wish to consult a doctor or take a home pregnancy test.
Spotting before a period is unlikely to require treatment. Wearing a panty liner or pad can usually protect a person’s underwear from any staining.
A doctor may sometimes advise a person to change their method of contraception to reduce spotting. For example, they may recommend a different type or strength of birth control pill.
Spotting before a period does not always have an obvious cause. However, it can sometimes be an early sign of pregnancy. Spotting may also occur due to hormonal fluctuations, starting a birth control pill, or perimenopause.
Although spotting is not usually a cause for concern, a person should talk to their doctor if spotting is persistent or occurs alongside other symptoms, such as pain, irritation, and unusual discharge.