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Pads and Tampons

When you start having your period, you can use a pad or tampon to soak up the menstrual blood. Many girls start out using pads, but might want to use tampons when they do sports or go swimming.

 How do you know which one is right for you? Let's start by explaining what each one is.

What Are Pads?

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 leaks. Sometimes, pads are called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins.

Pads come in different sizes for heavier and lighter periods. They also come in deodorant varieties, but these can irritate the vagina.

How Do I Use a Pad?

To use a pad, peel the adhesive strip off and press it on to your underwear. Change the pad about every 3–4 hours. If your period is heavy, you can change your pad more often. Changing pads often can cut down on any odor.

After you remove a 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  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.

What Are Tampons?

Tampons (say: TAM-ponz) also absorb menstrual blood, but they work from inside the vagina. A tampon's absorbent material is pressed tight into a small cylinder shape. The tampon is put inside the vagina and absorbs the blood before it comes out. Many girls wonder: 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 put in using your fingers.

How Do I Use a Tampon?

Tampons are easy to use, but you do need to learn how to put them in. The directions inside the box will explain how to do that. 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.

Change to a new tampon at least every 4 to 6 hours. You can't see it as you would with a pad, so be sure to remember when it's time to change to prevent spotting and leaks on your underwear.

To take the tampon out, pull gently on the string attached to the end of it. Then, 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.

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. Like pads, tampons also come in deodorizing scents, which can irritate the vagina. Again, regular changing usually can manage any odor concerns.

Can a Tampon Get "Lost"?

Many girls worry the tampon might get lost inside them. Luckily, that can't happen. The opening of the cervix (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. If you try to take out the tampon and have trouble finding the string at first, don't worry. Relax and you'll be able to find it. If you need help, 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.

What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare infection that can happen to girls who use tampons. If tampon is left in too long, it gives germs a chance to grow and cause infection. So it's very important that you change your tampon at least every 4-6 hours, even if your period is light.

Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome are a high fever, vomiting or diarrhea, severe muscle aches, weakness, dizziness, or a rash that looks like a sunburn. If you use tampons and get any of these symptoms, take out the tampon and tell an adult immediately. Have someone take you to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible.

How Do I Decide Whether to Use a Pad or Tampon?

When deciding whether to use pads or tampons, it's really up to you. Many girls start out using pads, but might want to use tampons when they do sports or go swimming. Tampons also 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 because you can see the blood on them. 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.

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!

If you have any concerns or questions about your period, talk to your mom, dad, or doctor.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: August 2020