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What is puberty? Changes & Stages

Puberty is a time of physical and emotional changes; it transforms a child into a teenager and hence, is an extremely important stage of a girl’s life. It is true that puberty is inevitable. However, it is also a fact that every girl’s puberty experience is unique and therefore, should be handled accordingly. Puberty in girls is popularly believed to be a time when hormones that were in hibernation until now get awakened and signal your body to start the process of puberty. The hormones estrogen and progesterone are responsible for many of the changes experienced during puberty.

When does puberty occur?

The onset of puberty varies among individuals. Puberty usually occurs in girls between the ages of 10 and 14, while in boys it generally occurs later, between the ages of 12 and 16. In some African-American girls, puberty begins earlier, at about age 9, meaning that puberty occurs from ages 9 to 14.

Adolescent girls reach puberty today at earlier ages than were ever recorded previously. Nutritional and other environmental influences may be responsible for this change. For example, the average age of the onset of menstrual periods in girls was 15 in 1900. By the 1990s, this average had dropped to 12 and a half years of age.

Stages of puberty

  • Growing Really Fast
    AND all the sudden your jeans are too short. Where’d that come from? It’s known as a “growth spurt” and it’s one of the first signs that puberty has begun.First, you may notice your feet and hands getting bigger. Next, your arm and leg bones grow so you’re taller. You may also gain some weight to match the boost in your bone size.This is sometimes called “the awkward time” because you feel like your body is not quite proportional. But don’t worry! Your body knows what it’s doing and soon enough, it will even itself out.
  • Breast development
    This is the first noticeable sign of puberty in females. The internal structures of the breast begin to develop under the influence of hormones including oestrogen and progesterone. Growth hormone and glucocorticoids then complete the development of the network of ducts within the breast, while fatty and fibrous tissue enlarge the breast. Breast development is generally completed at around the age of 20. However, minor changes occur with each menstrual cycle and the breasts change dramatically during pregnancy.
  • Body Hair!
    You’ll notice hair growing in your pubic area, that section of your middle that a bikini bottom covers. At first, this hair is soft and there's not much of it. Later, it grows longer and becomes a little curly.Around this time, hair will grow under your arms too. This is a good time to ask mom if you can try shaving.
  • Menstruation
    The first menstrual period, also known as menarche, marks the end of puberty. The average age of menarche has declined over the past decade in Western nations and is now about 12 years of age. This is thought to be due to improved nutrition. Attaining menarche does not nesessarily mean that a girl is fertile as the first few menstrual cycles are not likely to result in the release of an egg (ovulation). Ovulation generally begins to occur regularly about a year after menarche.

Progesterone and oestrogen
Progesterone and oestrogen are important hormones in the development of adult reproductive function. Levels of both hormones increase significantly during puberty, resulting in many changes to the body.

Progesterone mainly affects the uterus (the womb) to prepare it for pregnancy during the second half of the menstrual cycle. It thickens the uterus lining in preparation for a fertilised egg to implant. If fertilisation does not occur, this lining breaks down and is discharged as a menstrual bleed.

The oestrogens stimulate most of the other changes associated with puberty.

One effect of oestrogen is to change the female sex organs from those of a child into those of an adult. It stimulates the growth of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina. The external genitalia, including the labia minora and labia majora, also increase in size.

Oestrogens are also responsible for the development of the breasts. An extensive ductile system is developed and additional fat is deposited in the area. The ability to produce milk also comes about as a result of the influence of oestrogen.

The reabsorption of bone is inhibited by oestrogens. This results in bone growth, so that the female growth in height during puberty is rapid for several years. However, oestrogens also cause the bones to stop growing earlier than they do in males, leading to the growth of women ceasing several years earlier than the growth of men. Women are therefore generally shorter in stature.

Oestrogens increases the deposition of fatty tissue, so that women have a higher percentage of body fat than men. Fat is particularly deposited in the hips, thighs, buttocks and breasts. This produces the characteristic female “hourglass” figure. Skin is also thickened in females, although it remains thinner, softer and warmer than in males of the same age.

  • More Curves
    Hello, curves! As your pelvis (the large bone across your hips) begins to grow, your hips get wider, your breasts develop and your waist gets smaller. In other words, your body gets some “shape.”Some girls gain weight quickly during this time. Exercise and eat well, but don’t get worried. Weight gain is absolutely a natural part of puberty!
  • More Sweat
    Is it hot in here? It may just be you sweating more! It’s because your sweat glands are becoming larger and more active. This is probably a good time to try out deodorants with help from your mom.
  • Oily Skin and Hair
    Pimples, zits and grease – oh my! During puberty, the pores in your skin produce more oil, especially on your face. Enter acne. It’s probably time to get in a new routine of washing your hair and face more often. Just don’t freak out too much. Everyone has zits pop up!
  • Changes in Your Genitals
    Your genitals also grow and change during puberty. Your outside parts (the vulva) are enclosed by two sets of “lips.” The larger lips have hair; the inner, smaller lips don't. These increase in size a little bit.You can’t see it, but inside your body, your vagina is getting longer and your uterus is getting bigger.
  • Discharge
    Have your underwear been getting a little wet sometimes? Have you noticed yellow or white stains in your undies at the end of the day?This is discharge, the fluid that's produced by your body to naturally moisten and cleanse your vagina. It's perfectly normal and means that you’ll probably start having periods very soon.
  • Your Period
    A big red sign that you’re well on your way through puberty! For the first two years, your periods can be very unpredictable. You could have one period and then wait as long as six months for the next one. One period may last a day, another, ten days. You may experience spotting between periods.It takes one or two years for your periods to even out. Eventually, your cycle will settle into a regular pattern that’s unique to your body.

What other changes in the body occur during puberty in boys and girls?

  • The "growth spurt"
    A rapid increase in height, referred to as a growth spurt, usually accompanies puberty. This rapid increase in height typically lasts for two to three years. About 17%-18% of adult height is attained during puberty. Although the increase in height affects both the trunk and the limbs, growth in the limbs usually happens first. The growth spurt characteristically occurs earlier in girls than in boys, with girls having the growth spurt approximately two years prior to boys, on average. In girls, the growth spurt typically precedes the onset of menstruation by about six months.
  • Bone growth and mineralization
    Puberty is accompanied by growth of bones and increases in bone density in both boys and girls. In girls, bone mineralization peaks around the time of the onset of menstrual periods, after the time of peak height velocity (growth spurt). Studies have shown that bone width increases first, followed by bone mineral content, and lastly by bone density. Because of the lag between bone growth and achievement of full bone density, adolescents may be at increased risk for fractures during this time.
  • Weight changes
    Changes in weight and body composition occur in both boys and girls. Adolescent girls develop a greater proportion of body fat than boys, with redistribution of the fat toward the upper and lower portions of the body, leading to a curvier appearance. While boys also have an increase in the growth of body fat, their muscle growth is faster. By the end of puberty, boys have a muscle mass about one and a half times greater than that of comparably sized girls.

What are the medical concerns associated with normal puberty?

  • Acne: Acne is an inflammation of the sebaceous glands and hair follicles of the skin, which is most pronounced on the face but may occur on the neck, back, chest, or other areas. The hormonal changes in puberty lead to the development of acne in many adolescent boys and girls.
  • Gynecomastia: Gynecomastia is the term used to describe enlargement of the male breasts. The hormonal changes of puberty can cause a transient gynecomastia in normal boys that typically lasts for six to 18 months. Pubertal gynecomastia occurs at an average age of 13 in boys and affects up to one-half of normal adolescent boys.
  • Anemia: The normal pubertal progression in males is associated with increases in the ferritin (iron) and hemoglobin concentrations in the blood, but this increase is not observed in females. Adolescent girls tend to consume less iron-containing foods than boys, and this, combined with blood losses through menstrual bleeding, may place adolescent girls at risk for anemia.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): If teens become sexually active at puberty, they are at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • Scoliosis: Because of rapid growth during puberty, scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) can be worsened or may first become apparent during puberty.
  • Scoliosis: Because of rapid growth during puberty, scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) can be worsened or may first become apparent during puberty.
  • Musculoskeletal injuries: Adolescents may be particularly prone to musculoskeletal injuries during the growth spurt and during growth of muscle mass. Since bone growth usually precedes full bone mineralization, adolescents are at risk for fractures. Also, since the growth in the limbs usually occurs prior to growth in the trunk, some joints may be left with a limited range of motion that increases the risk for sprains and strains.
  • Dysfunctional uterine bleeding: Girls who have recently begun menstruating may have irregular, prolonged, or heavy menstrual bleeding. Anovulation (not ovulating) is the most common reason for abnormal menstrual bleeding in adolescent girls.

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