Pads and Tampons
Which Is Right for You?
Once you get your period, you’ll need to use something to soak up the menstrual blood. Your choices are a pad or a tampon. If you’ve ever seen them on the store shelves, you know there are many varieties to choose from. How do you know which one is right for you?
Let’s start by explaining exactly what each one is.
Pads are rectangles of absorbent material that you stick to the inside of your underwear. Some have extra material on the sides (called “wings”) that fold over the edges of your underwear to better hold the pad in place and prevent leakage. Sometimes, pads are called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins.
Tampons (say: TAM-ponz) also absorb menstrual blood, but they work from inside the vagina. A tampon is also made of absorbent material, but it’s pressed tight into a small cylinder shape. The question all girls wonder is — how do you put them in? Some tampons have applicators, which are plastic or cardboard tubes that help put the tampon in place. Other tampons can be inserted using your fingers.
Many girls start out using pads, but might want to use tampons when they do sports or go swimming. You’ll want to talk to your mom or another woman you trust when you are trying to decide which is right for you.
Light or Heavy Flow?
Pads come in different sizes for heavier and lighter periods. They also come in deodorant varieties, but these can irritate the vagina. Simply changing pads often can cut down on any odor.
You might wonder how often pads must be changed. It depends on how much menstrual blood you have, but it’s a good idea to change pads at least every 3 or 4 hours even if you’re not menstruating much. Naturally, if your period is heavy, you should change pads more often because they may get saturated more quickly.
Once you’ve removed your pad, wrap it in toilet paper and put it in the trash can (or if you’re in school or another public restroom, use the special disposal box that’s found in most stalls). If you have a pet at home, make sure you throw pads away in a trash can that your pet can’t get into. Don’t try to flush a pad down the toilet — they’re too big and may back up the toilet and make a huge (embarrassing!) mess.
Like pads, tampons come in different sizes for heavier and lighter periods. “Super” generally means that variety is for heavy flow. Try to use the least-absorbent tampon that you need. Using one that’s too absorbent can cause problems. Like pads, tampons also come in deodorizing scents, which can irritate the vagina. Again, regular changing usually can manage any odor concerns.
Tampons are also easy to use, but you do need to learn how to put them in. If tampons appeal to you, you can learn a little about them before you get your first period. The directions inside the box will explain how to insert them. When you try one for the first time, wash your hands well, follow the directions carefully and be sure to relax. Some girls find that using an applicator-style tampon (especially one with a rounded top) and a slender-sized tampon makes it easier at first. It also helps to first try a tampon on a heavier flow day, so that the tampon slips in easier.
Tampons Can’t Get “Lost”
Many girls worry the tampon might get lost inside them. Luckily, that can’t happen. The opening of the cervix (located at the top of the vagina) is just too tiny for a tampon to get through. It can’t travel to other parts of your body, like your stomach.
Tampons typically have a string attached to one end that stays outside a girl’s body and can be used to remove the tampon at any time. If you have trouble finding the string at first, don’t worry. Relax and you’ll be able to find it. If you’re having trouble, tell a parent.
It’s possible to forget you have a tampon in and insert another one. But they still can’t get lost in your body. If this happens, just remove them as soon as possible.
A tampon needs to be changed every 4 to 6 hours or when it’s saturated with blood. Because you can’t see it as you would with a pad, you’ll need to remember when it’s time to change, or spotting and leakage will occur on your underwear. Pull gently on the string that is attached to the end of the tampon, pull it out, wrap it in toilet paper, and throw it in the trash. If you have a pet at home, make sure you throw tampons away in a trash can that your pet can’t get into. Don’t flush it in the toilet — even tampons that say they’re flushable can still cause problems in some toilets.
Preventing Toxic Shock Syndrome
It’s very important that you change your tampon every few hours, even if your period is light. Why? Because leaving one in too long — like all day or all night — puts you at risk for a rare but very dangerous illness called toxic shock syndrome (TSS). That’s why it’s a good idea to use the least-absorbent tampon you need. That may sound weird. You might think the most-absorbent one would be best because you wouldn’t have to change it as often.
But when you keep a tampon in too long, bacteria can grow. Girls who use very absorbent tampons are most at risk for this especially if the tampons are kept in for a long time, giving the bacteria plenty of time to grow. These bacteria can grow within the tampon, enter the body from inside the vagina, then invade the bloodstream, releasing toxins that can cause a very severe, and occasionally life-threatening, illness.
Symptoms of TSS include high fever, vomiting or diarrhea, severe muscle aches, a feeling of extreme weakness or dizziness, and a rash that looks like a sunburn. If you ever have these symptoms while wearing a tampon, remove it and tell an adult immediately. Have someone take you to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible.
But remember that this problem is very rare and most women never become ill from using tampons. When deciding whether to use pads or tampons, it’s really up to you. Some girls like tampons because they can go swimming with no problem, and they are easy to store in a purse or pocket. Another advantage to tampons is that they can’t be felt because they’re inside the body. A pad may feel bulky to some girls.
Other girls like pads because they’re easy to use, and it’s easier to remember when to change them since you can see them getting soaked with blood. Many girls switch back and forth: Sometimes they use tampons and sometimes they use pads, depending on the situation, where they’re going to be, and their menstrual flow. Some use pads at night and tampons during the day. And some girls with heavy periods use tampons together with pads or pantiliners for added protection against leakage. If you have any concerns or questions about your period, talk to your doctor.
Even if you haven’t started your period yet, it’s a good idea to be prepared by carrying a few pads or tampons with you, just in case. Then, if today is the day, you’ll be ready!
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014