Getting your first period can be exciting, surprising, and sometimes disconcerting. There are a lot of emotional components to menstruation.
There are also new hygienic components that you want to add to your daily routine. This may start with using menstrual pads such as sanitary napkins or towels. Tampons are another option.
Not all women use tampons. It is a personal decision that you should feel comfortable with and make on your own. If you do decide to use tampons during your period, the first time can be a little daunting. Here is some information that will help make this easier.
- What is a Tampon?
- Types & Sizes
- How to Use a Tampon
- Risks of Using Tampons
- Alternative Choices
What is a Tampon?
A tampon is a plug of absorbent material inserted into a body cavity or wound to stop or absorb secretions. In the case of female menstruation, a tampon is inserted into the vagina to absorb menstrual blood.
Tampons are cylindrical in shape and typically come with a connected string (for easy removal) and sometimes an applicator. The tampon itself is usually made of cotton or rayon. An applicator allows you to insert the tampon into the vagina with greater ease.
In the United States, tampon applicators are made of plastic or cardboard. The applicator design is similar to a syringe: a small tube slides up into a larger tube (where the tampon is located), and pushes the tampon into the vagina.
Tampons that don't include an applicator are called digital tampons and are simply unwrapped and pushed into the vagina with the finger. They are smaller to carry, but require a little more effort to insert.
Back to top
The ancient Egyptians first invented disposable tampons made of softened papyrus around 2500 B.C. The ancient Greeks followed this with tampons made from lint wrapped around a small piece of wood. Other material for ancient tampons included wool, paper, vegetable fibers, sponges, grass, and cotton.
But it was not until 1929 that Dr. Earle Haas of Denver, Colorado first invented the modern tampon with an applicator. Dr. Haas submitted the design for patent in 1931, and in 1936, the tampon was first sold in the United States.
He later gave his invention the brand name Tampax, which is still one of the main tampon brands today. Other big-name brands include Playtex, Kotex, and o.b.
Back to top
Types & Sizes
There are many different tampons available on the market today. However, all tampons in the United States are made of cotton, rayon, or a combination of the two materials. Below are the four main types of tampons.
- Cardboard applicator: This is the simplest and most inexpensive tampon applicator.
- Plastic applicator: Tampons with plastic applicators tend to be a little more expensive. However, many women find plastic applicators slide more easily into the vagina and are more comfortable to insert.
- Extendable applicator: This is a new and still pretty uncommon applicator. The tampon comes in a much smaller package than the typical tampon and applicator. To use the applicator, you must extend the smaller tube by pulling it out. These tampons are compact and discrete.
- Digital tampons: These tampons do not have an applicator. To insert the tampon, you push the tampon into the vagina with your fingers (digital).
Tampons vary in the amount of fluid they can absorb and are named and rated according to their absorbency – e.g. Junior, Regular, Super, Super-Plus, and Ultra absorbency.
Remember: You should use the smallest absorbency tampon appropriate for your period, and only use tampons when you are menstruating.
Back to top
How to Use a Tampon
You can use these guidelines, along with the descriptions and diagrams in the tampon product you purchase, to assist you.
Before you start, try to relax. When you're nervous, your muscles tense up, which makes it much harder to insert the tampon.
- Pick the smallest size tampon for the first time (junior or regular absorbency). Once you get used to the process, you can use larger, higher absorbency tampons if the smaller tampons are not sufficiently absorbent (if they are allowing menstrual leakage).
- Sit or stand in a comfortable position. You can stand with your leg on the toilet or tub, or crouch down with your knees apart if you prefer.
- Unwrap the tampon and extend the string fully. Hold the tampon in the middle of the tampon with the thumb and index or middle finger of your writing hand. Be sure the string is visible and is pointing away from your body.
- With your other hand, spread the folds of skin around the vulva (called the labia) and position the tip of the tampon in the vaginal opening. The end with the string should be sticking out the end away from your body, pointed toward the ground.
- While holding the tampon at a 45-degree angle, gently push the tampon into the opening (aim for the small of your back). Push the tampon in until your fingers (holding the middle of the tampon) touch your body and the larger tube is completely inside your vagina.
- If you are using a tampon with an applicator, next, use your index finger to push the smaller tube through the outer tube (while continuing to hold onto the larger tube with your other fingers). This movement pushes the tampon out the front end of the applicator and into the vagina. At this point, there will only be a small amount of tube that is outside your vagina, and the tampon string should be visible.
- Once the inner tube is all the way in, remove the applicator. Wrap the applicator in toilet paper and throw it away in the trash or feminine waste disposal container. Do not flush the applicator down the toilet; the cardboard or plastic will clog the toilet. Make sure the string hangs outside the vaginal opening.
- A few hours later, when you are ready to remove the tampon, grasp the string and gently pull it downward until the entire tampon is out. It is best to wrap the tampon in toilet paper and throw it away. Some disposable tampons can be flushed down the toilet, but it is not recommended.
For your first time, you may want to try using a tampon when your menstrual flow is heavy. This will aid the tampon in easily gliding into place.
It is usually not necessary to remove your tampon before urinating or defecating, and if you try to remove it too soon, it will be "dry," and difficult to remove. Don't panic; just wait another hour and try again.
Back to top
Risks of Using Tampons
Most women find that tampons are easier and less problematic to deal with than sanitary napkins or towels. However, some women do find tampons irritating or uncomfortable.
Furthermore, tampons have been found to increase the risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus.
Toxic Shock-Like Syndrome (TSLS) is a similar condition caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. Both of these syndromes are extremely rare – about one to 17 out of every 100,000 menstruating females will get TSS each year and even fewer get TSLS, but these cases may be fatal.
If you choose to use tampons, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends the following to lower your risk of TSS:
- Use the tampon with the lowest absorbency you need, e.g. don't use a bigger or more absorbent tampon for a small blood flow.
- Change your tampon at least every four to eight hours.
- Avoid using tampons overnight when sleeping.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Store tampons in a clean, dry place.
- Wash hands with soap and water before and after inserting or removing a tampon.
- Try a less absorbent variety if a tampon is irritating or difficult to remove.
- Stay informed of TSS by reading the package information included in the tampon box and asking about TSS when you have a medical checkup.
- Stay aware of TSS symptoms because early diagnosis and speedy treatment are crucial in avoiding the most serious effects of TSS.
TSS symptoms include:
- Sudden high fever of 102ºF (38.9ºC) or higher
- Systolic blood pressure below 90 mmHg
- Muscle aches
- Dizziness, fainting, or near fainting when standing up
- Malaise and confusion
- A rash that looks like a sunburn
Back to top
If you decide you do not wish to use tampons, there are many other products available to you. Other products include both disposable and reusable options.
- Menstrual pads (sanitary napkins/towels)
- Organic menstrual pads
- Diaphragm-style menstrual cups
- Silicone or gum rubber menstrual cups
- Diaphragm used as menstrual cup
- Cloth menstrual pads
- Homemade menstrual pads
- Free-flow layering to cover obvious leaking or instinctive to recognize when you will bleed
- Padded panties/period pants/Lunapanties
Back to top
Written By: Leigha Winters,
college student writer
Reviewed By: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last Reviewed: October 2013
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
A Guide to Using Your First Tampon. Center for Young Women's Health.