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Tampons can give you greater physical freedom during your periods and be really convenient — but trying one for the first time might be a little scary. What do teen girls need to know?

While only 10 percent of US girls begin having periods before they're 11 years old, over 90 percent will be menstruating by the time they're a very specific 13.75 years old. The median age age which girls in the United States start menstruating is 12.43 years, meaning a really good chunk of girls have periods by this time. 

Surveys have shown that girls don't exactly experience their periods as a pleasure, describing them with words like "annoying", "inconvenient", "uncomfortable", and even "painful". If you're a young teenager who has recently started having periods, you may think that using tampons will make your menstruation less annoying and inconvenient. Worn inside the vagina where they absorb menstrual fluids, tampons can offer increased physical freedom during what some euphemistically call "that time of the month", even allowing you to go swimming. 

Starting off with tampons can also, mind you, be a little bit intimidating or even scary — and girls who are quite excited about the prospect of trying them often have plenty of questions. Getting the answers is important, because knowing all about the product you're about to give a try boosts the odds that it will work out nicely for you.

This is, then, a guide to using tampons for the very first time. We'll include the kinds of questions that young girls who are menstruating might have, but if you're an older first-time tampon user, there's going to be info for you, too. 

What tampons are right for me?

Tampons come in different sizes, because they have different levels of absorbency — meaning they can absorb different volumes of menstrual fluids. A brand may offer, for instance, different tampons for "light", "regular", "super", and "super plus" flow (and sometimes even more), though the actual wording will vary from brand to brand. This may also be represented by pictoral "drops" on the packaging, where one drop means light flow, three drops means heavy flow, and so on. 

It's important that tampons come with different levels of absorbency for two reasons:

  • Some girls and women women will generally have a heavier flow than others. 
  • Your flow is likely to be heavier during the first couple of days or your period, so you may choose to use heavy-flow tampons during those heavy days and then move on to lighter-flow tampons when your flow dies down. 
Tampons designed for a heavier flow are larger in size too, mind you. So we'd recommend that girls or women trying tampons for the very first time select a lighter-flow tampon, which will be smaller. Using these smaller tampons will allow you to get used to inserting them and taking them out. As you become more familiar with tampons, you can decide which ones are right for you over the longer term. 

Girls often ask what brand of tampons they should pick. We're not here to advertise the products of a particular manufacturer, so we can't tell you that. What we will say is that tampon brands will have their own websites. Once you decide what tampon brand you want to try, you can go there to find out which of their products they'd recommend for first-time use or for girls who've recently started getting periods. Many brand even have tampons specifically designed for tweens and young teens. 

OK... important stuff here — where does the tampon go?

You know that tampons are worn inside the vagina, through which your menstrual flow passes as it exits your uterus — but how do you find the vagina? The female genital anatomy features three "holes". From top to bottom (as seen from the head down), they are the urethra, the vagina, and the rectum. 

The urethra is where urine comes from. It is a rather tiny opening that is situated above the vagina. If you look closely (with a mirror), you'll definitely be able to see it — but it's also going to be quite obvious that you're not gonna get a tampon up there and that you shouldn't try either. The rectum ("butthole", if you like), is the bottom hole. This is, of course, where your bowel movements leave your body, and not where menstrual flow comes from. The tampon doesn't go here, either. 

You're shooting for the middle hole, the vagina, which is conveniently located between these two other ones. To familiarize yourself with your anatomy and to better see it, you can spread the labia (also sometimes called "lips") that surround your vulva, the whole female genital, with your fingers. It's not going to look huge, but it's clearly there. If you're currently menstruating, you'll even be able to tell that that's where your flow is coming from. So, that's where the tampon goes. 

What position should you be in when inserting a tampon? Should you be sitting, standing, or whatever?

Everyone will develop their own preference. Try, however, making yourself comfortable on the toilet and then spreading your legs with your knees bending outward. After removing the packaging, and with washed hands, grab onto the tampon with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand. Spread your labia. Then slide the tampon in up to the point where it ends. You want to have the blue string sticking out, because this is going to allow you to remove it later. Some girls and women also like to put one foot up on the toilet and insert a tampon as they stand. 

Because the vagina angles downwards towards the uterus, you also want to watch your angle. Insert the tampon more or less pointing towards your bottom for a correct and comfortable position that will not cause you pain. Once a tampon is in, you should be able to see its blue string, but you shouldn't be able to feel its presence. If you do, take it out and try again with a new one.

Don't panic

The first time inserting a tampon may be a bit awkward and scary. Do it during quiet time, and relax. Don't panic. Nothing really weird is going to happen.

Nope, your tampon isn't going to "get lost" in your body. The vagina is finite (it doesn't go on forever), and it ends with the opening on one side and the cervix, the gateway to the uterus, on the other. Yes, the cervix is a kind of "door" that can let menstrual fluids through, but your tampon isn't going to go AWOL in there by itself. 

Yup, getting your tampon in may be difficult at first, though you'll soon get used to it. If you feel intimidated, stop your attempts and try again another time. Getting it out should be easy, as long as the string is sticking out. If, for some reason, it isn't, you can still get your tampon out. Just insert your fingers a little bit, grab hold of the tampon, and pull it out gently.

If you were wondering whether putting a tampon in will hurt — it shouldn't. If it does, try again another time. 

Toxic Shock Syndrome (AKA, How often do I change my tampons?)

Another thing that comes up often around tampon use is Toxic Shock Syndrome. It is a rare but potentially life-threatening complication that can strike when harmful germs get into the body and start releasing toxins. Though various things can lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome, it's also associated with tampon use.

To minimize your risk of this rare condition, pay really close attention to these tips and make sure to follow them:

  • Always wash your hands before putting a tampon in (as well as after).
  • Change your tampons often — at least as often as the manufacturer advises, which is usually four to eight hours. (Yes, you can sleep with a tampon in, but insert a new one right before bed, and remove it first thing in the morning.)
  • Use the lowest-absorbency tampon you can.
  • Alternate a bit — if you're using a tampon, choose a pad next time, and so on.
Symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome that tell you you need to take a trip to the hospital include a fever, symptoms that resemble the flu, feeling nauseous and vomiting, diarrhea, a skin rash that looks like sunburn, feeling faint or actually fainting, feeling confused, and having trouble breathing. 

Beware though — millions of women successfully use tampons without getting Toxic Shock Syndrome. Tampons are, in relation to TTS, a bit like crossing the road; always potentially dangerous, but quite safe if you take the right steps to avoid harm. 

Let's talk about the environment for a bit

Another question I was asked this this one — "Should you use cardboard or plastic applicators, or none at all?"

In terms of ease of use, preferences are going to vary from one person to the next. Some women really like applicators, which are supposed to make for easier insertion, while others are going to find that applicators make the process more complicated and confusing. Modern tampons often come with plastic applicators, too, and this question triggers some important issues I'd really like you to be aware of.

Take a minute to consider this:

  • Research has estimated that it will take a regular, non-organic menstrual pad 500 to 800 years (!!!) to break down. Because plastic features heavily in modern designs, these pads are never truly going to disappear. 
  • Tampons can be more environmentally friendly, with cotton ones taking around six months to degrade. Many brands now sell tampons that likewise contains tons of plastic, however, and when this is the case, you'll have the same situation as with pads. 
  • An abundance of research has made the alarming fact that microplastics, teeny-tiny fragments of plastic, can now be found pretty much anywhere in the vast oceans of the Earth. Plastic tampon applicators can break down into these microplastics, which harm marine life and have even been found in 36.5 percent of fish in the English Channel. 

Disposable menstrual products are now extremely popular. Research suggests the fact that many people are now used to them is "due to the high levels of marketing for disposable products and comparatively poor marketing for [reusable menstrual products such as menstrual cups and reusable pads]." In other words, because companies want to make money. 

Before you put your convenience ahead of everything else, ask yourself this. If you eat fish, do you like the idea that you're also inadvertently munching on someone else's plastic tampon applicator, albeit a really, really small part of it?

Do you like the thought of your great-great-great-great grandchildren having to find ways to deal with, among other things, your tampon from 400 years ago?

If you are now getting used to no longer using disposable straws, and using fabric grocery bags instead of plastic ones, do you really want to leave your periods out of your environmental awareness? I don't think you do. Reusable menstrual options can work amazingly, and you'll be doing your bit for the planet, too. If you do use tampons, at least try to choose a cotton one, and forego the plastic applicators. 

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