With so many different feminine hygiene products available today, how do you know what sort of protection is the best for you?
Generally, the best menstrual product is one that leaves you feeling comfortable and totally protected. When it comes to deciding which protection to use, understanding your own menstrual cycle can come in handy.
Periods vary enormously from woman to woman and can change at different stages in life. The periods you have at the beginning of menstruation can be very different to the ones you experience after childbirth, or leading up to menopause.
Most women have a period that lasts four or five days and occurs roughly every 28 days. But this can vary from woman to woman and a period can last between three to eight days, and a normal cycle can range from 21 to 40 days. Menstruation can be light, heavy, long or short and still be considered normal. You might find that you prefer using one single type of sanitary protection, or you may prefer to use different products depending on the pattern of your periods and your lifestyle. So what are your options?
This type of external protection consists of a pad of absorbent material that you stick on the inside of your pants. It absorbs the menstrual flow after it leaves your body. Pads come in different sizes and levels of absorbency, to suit different period needs.
You may find it useful to choose a thicker pad when your period is heavy at the beginning. You can always switch to a thinner one as your period gets lighter towards the end.
Pads should be changed regularly, approximately every three to four hours, or more frequently if needed.
Known as internal protection, tampons are made of absorbent materials that are inserted into the vagina. They soak up the menstrual flow before it leaves the body. Once inserted correctly, a tampon is held in place by the vagina and expands as it absorbs the menstrual blood.
Like pads, tampons come in various sizes and levels of absorbency. They should be changed every four to eight hours, depending on the heaviness of your period.
It can take a little practice to get the positioning of a tampon correct. Follow the instructions that come with the tampons. If the tampon feels uncomfortable then it probably isn't inserted correctly. In this case, you should pull it out and insert a new one. There are various designs available to help you fit your tampon more easily.
Some come with an applicator (either plastic or cardboard) that makes it easier to guide the tampon into the correct place. Others come with a smooth, rounded tip so that insertion is simpler and more comfortable.
A menstrual cup is an alternative to tampons and is made of rubber or medical grade silicone. It folds up to be inserted into the vagina and opens up once inside to 'catch' menstrual blood rather than absorb it.
The cup has a stem to help you remove it. The cup can then be emptied, rinsed with clean water and reinserted. Make sure you follow the instructions on how to clean the cup.
Menstrual cups are available from pharmacies and usually come in two sizes, one for women who have given birth and one for women who haven't. They can be worn for around four to eight hours at a time.
Pads versus tampons
Pads are a popular choice, especially for girls just starting their periods, because they're so straightforward to use. Just place one in your underwear and you're ready to go.
Alternatively, you may prefer the freedom of tampons because they can be worn inside the body. This means they're less bulky and can't be seen in tight-fitting clothes. They're also a good option when exercising, swimming or playing sports.
Many women use pads on some days and tampons on others. You can also use a tampon with a thin panty liner for extra protection against any possible leaks. Whatever you choose, it's important to feel comfortable and confident.
Should I be concerned about toxic shock syndrome?
Products that are inserted into the vagina, such as tampons and menstrual cups have been associated with toxic shock syndrome (TSS), but this is extremely rare.
This sudden, potentially fatal condition is caused by a release of poisonous substances from the overgrowth of either the Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria.
When a tampon is filled with blood, this can encourage the rapid growth of bacteria, especially if left in for longer than recommended. Similarly, super-absorbent tampons are linked with a higher risk of TSS - the higher the absorbency of the tampon, the higher the risk of getting the condition.
To reduce the risk of developing TSS, it’s recommended to use the lowest absorbency tampon that will meet your personal needs and to change your tampon regularly. If you use a menstrual cup, make sure you clean it thoroughly before use and empty it regularly. Follow the usage instructions which come with the product carefully.
Symptoms of TSS can include:
- A sunburn-like rash
- Sore throat
- Sudden fever
- Dizziness or fainting
- Whites of the eyes, lips and tongue turning bright red
- Breathing difficulties
TSS is a medical emergency. If you're using tampons or menstrual cups and you experience two or more of these symptoms, remove them straight away and seek medical advice immediately. If your symptoms are severe or are getting worse quickly, go to your nearest A&E immediately or call 999 for an ambulance.
If your daughter is expecting her first period soon, you can help her feel ready by putting together a useful little kit she can carry around.
Look out for specific ranges aimed at teens and include a couple of teen-sized sanitary pads and a clean pair of underwear. This way, she will always be prepared and won't have to worry if her period takes her by surprise.
There's no medical reason why your daughter can't use tampons as soon as she gets her period. However, pads may be a preferable option for the first few months so she can get used to her own flow and cycle.