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How Does a Tampon Work?

Tampons are a popular method for absorbing menstrual flow during your period. Knowing how they work and when to use them — and understanding important safety facts — can help you select the correct tampon for your body.

What are Tampons?

Tampons are considered medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that FDA-regulated tampons are made of cotton, rayon, or both, and are considered both safe and effective. FDA-approved tampons are single-use products that may or may not come with an applicator.

How Do I Select a Tampon?

Tampons come in a variety of absorbency levels, usually light, regular, super, and super plus. You may want to use light absorbency tampons on the first and last days of your period and a higher absorbency during your heaviest bleeding. Or, you may find that light absorbency works during the day, and you need a heavy absorbency at night. Regardless of what tampon you use, it is important to change it every 4-8 hours for safety and hygiene. 

Are There Any Risks?

Bacteria

Any time you insert something in the vagina, you may also be introducing bacteria. That’s why it’s important to wash your hands before inserting a tampon, and make sure you remove your tampon after 4-8 hours. 

Toxic Shock Syndrome

Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is a very rare bacterial infection, but using a tampon for extended periods of time increases your risk. Symptoms of TSS can come on quickly and be fatal. Those symptoms may include faintness, high fever, low blood pressure, headache, a sunburn-like rash, and vomiting or diarrhea. If you experience any signs or symptoms of TSS, be sure to remove your tampon immediately and call your doctor. Here are things you can do to reduce your risk of TSS:

  • Use a low absorbency tampon during light bleeding.
  • Leave a tampon in for no more than 8 hours before removing it.
  • Never reuse or reinsert a tampon.
  • Only use a tampon for menstrual bleeding. You cannot use a tampon for vaginal discharge. 

Spotting or Leaks

If a tampon is properly inserted and replaced regularly, you are unlikely to experience leaks. Tampons open up a bit like a flower: they “bloom” as they absorb fluid and are held in place by the vaginal canal. If a tampon is not inserted completely, or if it becomes too full, leaks can occur. You may be able to feel when your tampon needs to be replaced, as it may start to feel heavy, it may sit lower in your body, or it becomes noticeable when you couldn’t feel it before.

Can a Tampon Get Lost Inside My Body?

The good news — a tampon cannot get lost inside your body. The vaginal canal is short, and your cervix is too small for a tampon to enter. It is possible for the tampon string to slip inside and be difficult to find. If that happens, wash your hands, relax, and using two fingers, feel inside for the strings. You should be able to grasp the tampon or the strings to remove it. If you’ve tried several times and you really can’t remove the tampon, contact your healthcare provider for removal. It’s important not to leave a tampon in for extended periods of time. 

Do Tampons Hurt?

When used properly, tampons do not hurt. The most common form of discomfort with a tampon is nerves. If you’re tense you may find it difficult to insert the tampon into the vaginal canal far enough, which may feel uncomfortable.

When Can I Use a Tampon?

It’s important to use a tampon only during menstruation; you cannot use a tampon for vaginal discharge, nor should you insert one “just in case” before the bleeding starts. If the vaginal canal is dry, a tampon may be uncomfortable to insert or remove. You also increase your risk of bacterial infection when you use a tampon improperly. If you have any unusual symptoms, such as unusual discharge, rash, symptoms of an allergic reaction, or have discomfort with tampon use, use a different product to control menstrual flow and talk to your healthcare provider. 

How Do I Insert a Tampon?

To properly insert a tampon, the easiest way is to sit on the toilet with your knees apart. Holding the tampon with one hand, slide the barrel of the applicator (or the tampon itself if you’re using one without an applicator) into your vagina, angled toward your lower back. You want to gently guide the tampon into the proper place. Once the barrel of the applicator is in place, push the inner tube into the outer tube of the applicator. The tampon should now be in the proper place where you cannot feel it. If it’s uncomfortable, it may be too low. You can remove the tampon and try inserting a new one, or, insert a finger to gently push it up further. The cord will remain outside of your body for easy removal later. 

How Do I Remove a Tampon?

To remove a tampon, grasp the string and pull it down at the same angle you used to insert the tampon. Don’t flush it! No matter what the box says, most bathroom systems aren’t capable of handling flushed tampons or other sanitary products. Wrap the used tampon in toilet paper and dispose of it in the proper trash facility in the bathroom.

What Are the Benefits of Tampons Over Other Menstrual Products?

  • Tampons are small and discreet and can be easily carried in a purse or slipped into a pocket for a quick run to the bathroom. 
  • Pads can be bulky (especially high absorbency pads) and may be visible through tighter clothing.
  • You can swim with a tampon in! If you do, be sure to change it when you’re done swimming.
  • Pads and external period products may shift during strenuous activities and sports, leaving you more prone to leaks.

Black Woman's Hand Holding a Tampon