New to tampons, or looking to branch out into new types of period protection?
There are plenty of reasons to choose tampons – they’re safe, easy to use and discreet. They’re also ideal for all sorts of activities, including exercising and swimming.
So read on to find out everything you need you to know about how to make the most of using tampons for period protection.
What are tampons and why use them?
Tampons are tightly pressed cylinders of cotton wool or rayon (or a blend), just a few centimetres long. During your period, you can insert them into your vagina, where they soak up your blood before it leaves your body.
Tampons may be small and compact, but they’re highly effective at absorbing your menstrual flow. Some women find them more discreet and comfortable than pads, which you can stick to your pants to catch your blood as it flows out.
Benefits of tampons:
● because they sit inside your vagina, they can give you greater freedom than a pad. They’re a good choice for exercising, especially swimming
● they’re comfortable – if you insert one properly, you can’t usually feel a tampon inside you
● they’re invisible – you won’t have to worry about lumps in your underwear or clothing
● they’re neat – so they’re easy to slip into a handbag or pocket
● because they collect blood before it leaves your body, you can avoid the slight smell you may get with pads or period pants
Types of tampons
There are a few things to think about when you’re deciding what type of tampons might work best for you.
Tampons are available to cover different flows: light, medium and heavy. You can choose the absorbency level that’s best for you, which is usually the lowest absorbency needed to manage your flow.
You may need a more absorbent tampon during the first few days of your period – when your flow is heavier – then a lower absorbency option as your flow gets lighter towards the end of your period.
Applicator or non-applicator?
There are 2 main styles of tampon:
- tampons without applicators – you push these into your vagina using your finger (or fingers)
- applicator tampons – these come with 2 hollow plastic or cardboard cylinders that slot inside each other. The top cylinder, called the barrel, contains the tampon. The bottom part is the plunger, which you use to push the tampon into your vagina
New designs, reusable applicators and biodegradable, organic materials have widened the choice of tampons in recent years, meaning there are now more options than ever.
How to insert a tampon
First, you should wash your hands – this reduces the chances of introducing any germs into your vagina.
Now, relax, and make sure you have the time and privacy you need. It may take a few tries before you get the hang of inserting a tampon. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first couple of times.
Some women find it more comfortable to sit on the toilet, while others like to stand or squat. There’s no right or wrong way – finding what works for you is all that matters.
If you’re unsure where the tampon is meant to go, use a mirror and gently feel the outside and inside of your vagina.
If you’re using an applicator, hold it at the grip or in the middle and gently push the tip into your vagina until your fingers touch your skin. Then use the plunger to push the tampon up into your vagina. Throw away the applicator in the bin – or wash it if it’s reusable.
If you’re using a tampon without an applicator, your finger acts as the plunger – gently push the tampon in as far as your finger can reach.
Due to the angle of your vagina, you should aim towards your back, not straight up or across. Wash your hands afterwards as well.
How to take a tampon out
Regardless of the type, all tampons have a cotton string at the end. This sits outside your vagina, and you use it to gently pull out the tampon when you want to remove it.
Using tampons safely
Tampons are used by millions of women worldwide every day. Even so, there’s a very small risk of a condition called toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which is linked to tampon use.
TSS is very rare and affects just 1 to 3 out of every 100,000 women who are menstruating. However, it’s serious, and can be life-threatening if it’s not treated immediately.
How to reduce the risk of TSS from using tampons
TSS can affect anyone, but using tampons appears to increase the risk. You can reduce your risk by:
- changing your tampon at least every 4 to 8 hours. If you sleep with your tampon in, set an alarm so that you don’t sleep more than 8 hours at a time
- choosing the tampon absorbency that’s best matched to your flow
- alternating tampons with other period products, such as pads or period pants
- If you have any questions or concerns about using tampons, talk to your doctor or local sexual health clinic.
Using tampons – your questions answered
How often do you need to change a tampon?
It’s important to change your tampon at least every 8 hours, to help reduce the risk of TSS. Changing your tampon regularly also helps to prevent leaks, especially if you have a heavy flow.
Most women change their tampons every 4 to 8 hours. Through trial and error, you’ll find out what works for you. If you’re bleeding through a tampon after a couple of hours, you might need a higher absorbency.
If you find that you often need to change your tampon more frequently, it may be that you have heavy periods.
Can a tampon get lost or stuck inside me?
A tampon can’t get lost inside you – it can’t go anywhere other than your vagina.
At the top of your vagina, your cervix – sometimes called the neck of the womb – is a dead-end for a tampon. Only liquid – blood, sperm and other bodily fluids – can travel through your cervix.
As long as the tampon’s string is outside your vagina, you should be able to gently tug on it to remove the tampon.
Occasionally, however, it may be trickier. For example, if you forget you have a tampon in and insert a second tampon. This pushes the first one further into your vagina, so you may have trouble reaching it. Or if you accidentally push the string in with the tampon, it may be harder to get out.
But there’s no need to panic. Just follow these key steps:
- Wash your hands
- Use 1 or 2 fingers to gently feel inside your vagina for the tampon or string, so you can gently pull it out.
- You may find it easier to squat or sit on the toilet to do this, as the tampon may then move down towards your fingers.
This doesn’t happen often, but if you still can’t reach your tampon, go to your doctor or sexual health clinic. Getting help is important, especially if you’ve been wearing the tampon for 8 or more hours.
With time and practice, you’ll find putting tampons in and pulling them out will become second nature.
Can the string on a tampon break?
This is extremely rare, as long as you buy a good-quality brand. The tampon string is fixed securely into the tampon – it’s not just stuck – so it shouldn’t break. If by chance it does break, don’t panic – just follow the guidance above to get the tampon out.
Can a tampon fall out?
The muscles in your vagina are strong enough to hold a tampon in place until you pull it out. If you have the feeling that a tampon is slipping, it’s probably because it’s full of blood and needs to be changed.
Tampons may also start to feel different after childbirth. You may need to adjust how far you push the tampon in, or try a different angle or a bigger size.
Can I sleep with a tampon in?
Yes, but not for longer than 8 hours. Tampons should be changed at least every 8 hours to reduce the risk of TSS (see above).
Get into the habit of inserting a fresh tampon just before bed. Set your alarm for just under 8 hours, to make sure you wake up in time to remove or change it.
You could also consider switching to pads or period pants at night, to avoid having to worry about your tampon.
What if I forget to take my tampon out?
Try getting into the habit of setting reminders on your phone for every 4 to 8 hours. If you forget, take the tampon out as soon as you remember.
Leaving it in for longer than 8 hours can increase the risk of TSS. It also means the tampon can become compressed in your vagina and be harder to remove.
If you find it hard to remove, stay calm and follow the steps above. If that doesn’t work, or if you think you’ve left a tampon in but you’re not sure, see your doctor or local sexual health clinic. And don’t be embarrassed. Doctors see all sorts of problems every day – yours won’t be new to them.
Can I have sex with a tampon in?
Always remove your tampon before having sex. Fingers, penises and sex toys can push a tampon further inside you. It won’t get lost (there’s nowhere for it to go), but it could make it more difficult to remove.
Can I swim with a tampon in?
As tampons fit snugly inside you, you can comfortably swim while wearing one. If you’re worried about the string hanging out, tuck it into your swimsuit or inside the lips (labia) of your vagina.
Will I be able to feel the tampon inside me?
If you’ve inserted a tampon correctly, you might be aware that it’s there, but it shouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
If it feels uncomfortable, it either isn’t in far enough or it hasn’t been positioned to suit your body. Try pushing it further in using your finger, or remove it and try again with a fresh tampon.
Do I need to remove a tampon to go to the toilet?
No, you don’t. Your body has 3 separate openings to deal with the following:
- pee – your outer genitals (vulva) have 2 openings. 1 is the tiny urethra, which is where pee comes out
- period blood – below your urethra is your vagina, which is where period blood come out
- poo – the third opening behind your vagina, called your anus, is for pooing
If you want to avoid peeing on your tampon string, hold it to the side while you pee.
Due to the muscles you use when pooing, there’s a chance that your tampon may fall out when you go for a poo. If this happens, just throw it away and insert a fresh one.
Otherwise, it’s fine to leave a tampon in when you poo. Be careful not to get poo on the string, though, as this could transfer bacteria to your vagina or urethra, and lead to infection.
Can I flush tampons down the toilet?
This is a big no-no. Tampons are known for blocking toilets, pipes and sewer canals. They’re also bad for marine animals once they make their way to waterways. Wrap used tampons in toilet paper and bin them instead.
Products are sometimes sold as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ if they’re made from 100% organic cotton, but these can still cause blockages in pipes. They can also take a long time to break down – anywhere from 6 months to 5 years.
It’s always best to bin tampons, or compost them if you have the space to do this responsibly.
Can I buy reusable tampons?
You can now buy reusable tampons, but they’re not recommended because of the risk of infection.
However, there are reusable alternatives, such as menstrual cups and washable period pants or pads. Whichever you decide to use, always follow the instructions carefully and wash them thoroughly after use.
Read more about other period products.
Are there environmentally friendly tampons?
Tampons and pads account for hundreds of thousands of tonnes’ worth of waste every year, so choosing reusables can benefit the planet.
While reusable tampons aren’t recommended due to the risk of infection, reusable products such as period underwear, menstrual cups and washable pads can last for years, helping to reduce waste and save you money.
There are also other ways to reduce your environmental impact each month. You could try:
washable and reusable tampon applicators, to help reduce plastic waste
tampons and pads made from 100% organic cotton, which can:
- reduce the use of chemicals during manufacturing – chemicals increase greenhouse gas emissions and also put waterways at risk of contamination
- reduce the use of synthetic materials made from fossil fuels
- reduce water use – organic farming uses less water than non-organic techniques
choosing products with minimal wrapping, or those packaged in recyclable or compostable materials
For more information about reducing period product waste, check out the Plastic-Free Periods campaign from City to Sea (this organisation also partners with an approved reusable tampon applicator).
Do tampons expire?
They do, but you’ll probably use them before that happens. If you find an old box in the back of your cupboard, check the use-by date on the packaging, and don’t use them if they’re more than 5 years old. If you’re not sure, throw them away to be on the safe side.
When to see a doctor
While the risk of TSS is very small, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms, so you know when to see a doctor straight away.
Symptoms of TSS tend to start suddenly and can get worse very quickly. They can include:
- flu-like symptoms – severe tiredness, body aches, a cough or a sore throat
- feeling sick (or being sick), or having diarrhoea
- a high fever
- a rash that looks like sunburn
- red lips, tongue or eye whites
Although these could be caused by something else – such as the flu – it's important to get them checked out by a doctor.
You should go to a hospital or call an ambulance if:
- your symptoms are severe or they get worse very quickly
- you feel dizzy or faint
- you have problems breathing
- you feel confused
You should also see a doctor if:
- you have discomfort, pain or other unexpected symptoms – such as unusual discharge – when trying to use a tampon
- you have an allergic reaction (take your tampon out and contact your doctor)
- your have problems removing a tampon
Use our Smart Symptom Checker if worried about your period symptoms. Always see your doctor for serious concerns.