Question:

What exactly is breakthrough bleeding and how is it different from my period?

EXPERT ANSWER
Breakthrough bleeding is bleeding (either reddish or brown in color) coming from your vagina between periods. Not all bleeding is breakthrough bleeding. You could have bleeding because you landed smack on your vaginal area with the cross pole of a bike. But, most of the time, the little spotting between periods is caused by breakthrough bleeding. You're just hanging around and feeling fine and then you go to the bathroom and find that you have a small amount of reddish or brownish discharge in your underwear. CRAP! If you have pretty predictable cycles and it isn't your normal time, spotting like this can happen once in a while around the time you ovulate (about 2 weeks before your next period is due). For girls like me, with no predictability to their periods, wearing a thin pad for a few days if the spotting continues is a good idea so that you don't have to get stains out of your underwear in case it really is your period. Keep in mind that you should talk to a healthcare professional if you're experiencing anything out of the ordinary for you.
MOM ANSWER
Breakthrough bleeding is bleeding in between periods. As if once a month weren't enough, right? Often, breakthrough bleeding is noticeably lighter than your period ... it may be nothing more than a little bit of spotting. I know I've spotted a bit between periods before and a thin panty liner was all I needed to manage it. In my case, the spotting was due to birth control pills; I talked to my doctor about it and we tried a different pill. Keep in mind that birth control pills aren't the only reason for breakthrough bleeding. If you're concerned, talk to your healthcare professional. Also, be sure to read Health Expert Dr. Molly's response for a medical perspective on this.
PEER ANSWER

Breakthrough bleeding is any bleeding aside from your actual period. One of the few times I’ve ever had breakthrough bleeding was while taking birth control pills. But I have also heard that stress can cause it as well. If you are experiencing heavy bleeding more than normal between periods or for more than 7 days on your period, you really ought to see your healthcare professional.

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