Just because you’ve been wearing tampons for decades means you’re following doctors’ orders.
Pads. Tampons. Menstrual cups. Period underwear. When it comes to feminine hygiene, ladies, we have options.
Even so, the tampon, which has been around since the 1930s, still remains the most popular choice among women for their period needs. Women often choose tampons because of the freedom they offer—both physically (hello, bikini season!) and mentally (*flush, flush, byeee*).
While tampons themselves are a safe and effective product for managing your period, certain less-than-ideal hygiene habits may, er, take their safety rating down a notch. Here are six gross tampon mistakes that you’re probably making without realizing it.
1. You didn't wash your hands before inserting.
You know to lather up after using the bathroom, but when you’re on your period, it’s a good idea to suds up before too—especially if you’re using a tampon without an applicator.
“Women should always have clean hands when inserting a tampon,” says physician Michael Ingber, MD, who is board certified in urology and female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. “They should wash with soap and water to minimize introduction of any harmful bacteria into the vagina.”
Dirty hands can contaminate the tampon, which can raise your risk for certain infections, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI).
You can also carry a small bottle of antibacterial liquid, advises ob-gyn Laurence Orbuch, MD. “If there's really no clean water anywhere, at least you'll be able to use it to wash your hands.”
2. You didn't change your tampon after going #2.
If you’re pooping and your tampon string is dangling, there’s a good chance it’s going to be exposed to fecal matter. Not only is it gross to just sit on a poopy tampon string four hours, but “women may be more prone to getting a vaginal or urinary infection if there is gross fecal contamination in the region,” says Dr. Ingber.
Most urinary tract infections are caused by a variety of bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is found in feces. So because your bowel, vagina, and urethra (where pee comes out of) are so close together, keeping that poop-infected string in close proximity to the urethra can help fecal bacteria travel into it.
If you just put a new tampon in and can’t bare to waste it, just be sure to take care and inspect the string after doing your business. “Women should use proper hygiene techniques such as wiping from front to back, instead of back to front,” says Dr. Ingber. “This will not only minimize risk of fecal soilage of the tampon string but will also reduce risk of urinary tract infection.”
Here are other key ways to prevent a UTI.
3. You use tampons to plug up discharge
Tampons are designed to be used for menstrual periods. While it may be tempting to use one to spare your underwear of vaginal discharge, don’t.
For one thing, if you’re not on your period you may forget that it’s in there, which may cause your normal discharge to turn abnormal. Also, keeping a tampon in for kicks can mess with your healthy flow of vaginal secretions and increase your risk for infections like bacterial vaginosis, says Dr. Orbuch.
4. You don't change your tampon often enough
Tampons should be changed every four to eight hours and should never be left in longer than eight hours. A tampon that’s left in too long may increase your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Toxic shock syndrome is a serious disease caused by a certain type of bacteria that often results in fever, shock, and problems with several body organs.
Thankfully, since long-lasting “hyper-absorbable” tampons were taken off the market in the 80s, instances of TSS are far less common. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re on your lighter period days, set a timer to change your tampon within the eight-hour window. If you sleep more than eight hours a night, wear a pad while you snooze instead of a tampon.
If you’re wearing a tampon and you start to feel off—especially if you have a sudden fever (usually 102°F or more), vomiting, diarrhea, fainting or feeling like you are going to faint when standing up, dizziness, or a rash that looks like a sunburn—take your tampon out immediately and call a doctor.
5. You forget you have a tampon in (and insert a second one).
Hey, it happens. You’re scrambling to get ready in the morning and you completely space and insert a SECOND tampon when you already have one in.
If this occurs, don’t fret, the tampon won’t get lost in your body (the opening of your cervix is far too small for a tampon to get through). But what can happen is your second tampon may push your first tampon up higher into the vagina, where it may get stuck.
“On occasion, [tampons] can get wedged in and not be reachable with a finger. On those occasions, you should see your gynecologist to remove it,” says Dr. Orbuch.
6. You're using the wrong kind of tampons.
While it may be tempting to put in a “super” tampon on your light days so you don’t have to worry about changing it, don’t.
Besides that fact that you may be more likely to forget about it, you should always use the lowest absorbency that you need to prevent infection. Sure, that may be a bummer for your wallet, but for your health, it’s better change your tampon more often than not often enough.
It’s also important to pay attention to how different tampons affect you. Even though all tampons are regulated by the FDA and considered safe, some, like ones that are scented, may cause irritation in some women.
“Fragrances in tampons can be very irritating to women with sensitive skin and allergies. Try to stick to fragrance-free pads and tampons,” says Dr. Orbuch.