What It’s Like To Get Your Period In Outer Space

A study says female astronauts need more information on suppressing their periods

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Apr 21, 2016 at 3:17 PM ET

Getting your period is enough of a hassle here on Earth—just imagine what it’s like menstruating in outer space. That’s the reality for female astronauts, who have to deal with waste disposal systems that aren’t designed to handle period blood, limited water for clean-up and the difficulty of changing a sanitary product in zero gravity. That is, unless they suppress their periods entirely with hormonal contraceptives.

That’s why a new study published in the journal npj Microgravity reviews the options available to lady-nauts for avoiding bleeding all over the space shuttle, and recommends that they should be better educated about their options.

“For any woman, choice of a contraceptive requires careful consideration of benefits and risks with respect to her lifestyle and needs,” said Virginia Wotring, assistant professor at the Center for Space Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine. “The spaceflight environment adds some extra complexity to the overall equation, and we want female crewmembers to be able to make well-informed choices for their missions.”

The study says it’s more common for astronauts to suppress their periods on long missions. On short trips, female astronauts often use hormone therapy to time their menstrual cycles to avoid having a period in outerspace. And if they don’t suppress it? As Wotring said in an email, “The women who menstruate in space make their own choices of sanitary products, just as women on Earth do. Really the only difference is that microgravity makes loose items float.” Yep, floating sanitary pads.

There are only a few good options for suppression in space. Progesterone-only pills, which are taken by women who can’t take pills with estrogen, aren’t super reliable for period suppression and any other contraception options that have been found to impact bone density—like the projesterone-only injection depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA)—are out of the question because of irreversible bone changes related to spaceflight. That leaves the options of a combination daily pill, a subdermal implant or an IUD.

But the paper points out that there are downsides to a daily combination contraception pill, which is the option currently used most often used by female astronauts. Namely, that it requires extra cargo and produces waste in the form of pill packs—which, depending on the length of the mission, could be significant. A woman on a daily pill would require around 1,100 pills for a 3-year mission, the researchers note. Implants and IUDs, on the other hand, are long-acting and don’t require daily adherence. (And, it must be noted, there is some concern about the possibility of lady-nauts missing pills and getting pregnant in outer space—which, space sex, you guys!)

Ultimately, the authors says women astronauts should decide for themselves whether or how to bleed in space, and that they should be educated about all the options available to them. Hopefully, whatever they choose it results in them not having to constantly check the crotch of their spacesuits.