Once you get your period, you’ll need to use something to soak up the menstrual blood. There are lots of choices out there, and it may take some experimenting before you find the product that works best for you.
Here’s an overview of what’s available.
Super, slender, overnight, with or without wings, deodorant, maxi, mini . . . pads may seem a bit confusing at first because there are so many different kinds. But the good news is that with all these choices, there’s bound to be one that works for you.
Pads are rectangles of absorbent material that attach to the insides of a girl’s underwear. They’re sometimes also called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins. Some pads have extra material on the sides (called “wings”) that fold over the edges of your underwear to help hold the pad in place and prevent leakage.
Some girls have periods with heavier bleeding, and others have lighter periods with less bleeding. Pads come in several different thicknesses and absorbencies for heavier or lighter menstrual periods or for day or nighttime use. That way, girls who have a lighter flow don’t need to feel like they’re wearing a pad that’s bigger than they need — and girls with a heavy flow don’t need to worry that they’ll leak through their pad.
Some pads are scented or come with a deodorant in them. But these can cause irritation of the vagina or an allergic reaction in some girls.
Most pads that you buy in stores have a sticky strip along the bottom. You peel off the strip that covers the adhesive, press the pad into the crotch of your underwear (wrapping the wings around and sticking them under the crotch if the pad you’re using has wings). This type of pad is disposable.
Once you’ve removed the pad, wrap it in toilet paper and put it in the trash can (or if you’re at school or out somewhere, in the special disposal box that’s found in most stalls). Don’t try to flush a pad down the toilet — even the lightest kind of pad may back up the toilet and make a huge (embarrassing!) mess.
It’s also possible to buy reusable pads that can be washed after each wearing — these are usually available in natural health stores or online. These kinds of pads snap or clip onto a girl’s underwear (or have a special holder that attaches on). Some women choose to use these pads because they think they are better for the environment or because they save money. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
No matter what kind of pad you choose, it’s best to change pads every 3 or 4 hours, even when your flow isn’t very heavy. Regular changing prevents buildup of bacteria and eliminates odor. Naturally, if your period is heavy, you should change pads more often because they may get saturated more quickly.
Unlike a pad, which catches menstrual blood after it leaves the body, a tampon absorbs blood from inside the vagina. A tampon is also made of absorbent material, but it’s compressed into a tiny tubular shape. Like pads, tampons come in different sizes and absorbencies for heavier and lighter periods (words like “super” or “ultra” on the packaging usually mean that a tampon is designed for girls whose flow is heavier).
Tampons can also come with or without deodorant. There’s no real need for deodorant in a tampon, since regular changing usually gets rid of any odor. The deodorant in tampons can irritate the vagina, and could cause an allergic reaction in some girls.
It’s easy to use a tampon, but you do need to learn how. After washing your hands, follow the directions that come with the tampons carefully and be sure to relax. Some tampons come with an applicator — a plastic or cardboard tube that guides the tampon into the vagina. Other tampons are inserted with the fingers.
Some girls find that using a slender size, applicator-style tampon makes it easier to insert tampons at first. (An applicator with a rounded top can be especially helpful for beginners.) The first time you use a tampon, try to do so on a heavier flow day so the tampon slips in easier.
Some girls worry that tampons can get lost inside their bodies, but tampons can’t just randomly wander around inside us. The vagina holds a tampon in place and the opening of the cervix (located at the top of the vagina) is just too tiny for a tampon to get through. There’s only one place a tampon can go — and that’s out the way it came in.
Tampons usually 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. Occasionally, a girl may forget to remove a tampon or may insert a new one when the old one is still in place.
If a tampon is left in too long, it won’t get lost. But a girl may get a discharge and odor, and she could develop an infection. That’s why it’s important to change tampons often.
A tampon needs to be changed every 4 to 6 hours or when it’s saturated with blood. Because you can’t see a tampon as you can with a pad, you’ll need to remember when it’s time to change or you may get spotting or leakage on your underwear or clothing. Pull gently on the string that is attached to the end of the tampon until the tampon comes out, wrap it in toilet paper, and throw it in the trash. Don’t flush a tampon down the toilet — even when the box says a tampon is flushable, some tampons can still cause problems in some plumbing systems.
If it’s time to change your tampon and you can’t find the string, don’t worry! The tampon is still there. You’ll need to reach in with your fingers to find the string. It may take a minute to do because the string might be a bit hard to grab.
Like a tampon, a menstrual cup is inserted into the vagina. Instead of absorbing blood, though, the cup catches it before it flows out of the vagina. Menstrual cups are made of flexible materials, like rubber or silicone. Since you can’t see when the cup is full, it will need to be emptied (or, in the case of disposable cups, thrown away) several times a day. Instructions that come with the cup explain how to do this.
Menstrual cups are not as commonly used as tampons, so they may be harder to find. Although some menstrual cups look like a diaphragm, they are not a method of contraception and will not offer any protection against pregnancy or STDs.
One thing to remember about tampons: It’s very important that you change them every few hours and that you wear the absorbency type that is right for you.
Never put a tampon in and leave it in all day or all night, thinking that you won’t need to change it because your period is so light. Doing this puts girls at risk for a rare but very dangerous — and sometimes life-threatening — disease called toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
TSS results from a bacterial infection that may occur when using super-absorbent tampons, especially if they are left in longer than is recommended.
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 a parent, school nurse, or other adult immediately. Have someone take you to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible. The body can go into shock with TSS if someone waits too long to seek medical treatment.
Remember, though, that TSS is very rare and most women never become ill from using tampons, especially if they follow the guidelines for changing them regularly.
Tampon or Pad?
When deciding what type of protection to use, it’s really up to you. Some girls like tampons because they’re easy to store in a purse or pocket. Tampons and cups are also helpful for girls who participate in sports like swimming, since you can’t wear a pad in the water.
Some girls prefer 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 girls 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.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD