If you’ve heard that tampons are supposed to be safe because the FDA says there is no asbestos in them, or because there is nothing to fear in all-cotton products, then you are missing a few crucial bits of information. According to WebMD, “More than a third of all cases of toxic shock involve women under 19, and up to 30% of women who have had the disease will get it again.”
It’s definitely worth getting all the facts, so that you can make an informed decision. They aren’t complicated. It’s simply a matter of understanding how toxic shock syndrome occurs and considering a few facts about tampons that often get overlooked.
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Why Cotton Isn’t Harmless
Tampons that are 100% cotton have garnered a reputation for being the safest to use on a regular basis. However, as pointed out on OrganicConsumers.org, cotton crops in the U.S. are sprayed by more than a billion tons of pesticides and herbicides every year. Many of them may damage the nervous system or lead to cancer.
Furthermore, a great deal of the cotton crop in this country is now genetically engineered, which could have severe long term effects. London’s Institute for Science in Society cautions that genetically engineered cotton in tampons could result in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There are actually organic cotton tampons available these days, but they don’t quite solve all of the problems caused by regular use.
OrganicConsumers.org also tells of a demonstration conducted in some college classes covering women’s health. A tampon is placed in a glass of water until it has absorbed the liquid, and then removed. Students are then directed to notice all of the fibers left behind that are still floating around in the water.
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These, they are told, remain inside a woman’s uterus.
And if that isn’t scary enough, there still remains toxic shock syndrome.
How and Why Toxic Shock Develops
Toxic shock is a form of staph infection, which is well-known for the potential to be exceedingly dangerous, and possibly fatal. What is not commonly understood is that staph already, quite harmlessly, exists in the vagina. To turn into toxic shock syndrome, the bacteria must be presented with two things simultaneously:
1. An environment in which they can multiply rapidly
2. A entrance for their poisons into the bloodstream
Tampons offer both of these.
Actually, any device that is saturated with blood will allow bacteria to grow rapidly. While cotton or rayon fibers are not quite as welcoming an environment as polyester foam, even diaphragms, cervical caps and menstrual sponges will have the same result when left in for more than 30 hours or so. In the case of sponges, pieces may remain in the vagina unnoticed.
Why Toxic Shock is More Likely with Tampons
It is the sliding of tampons in and out that can create microscopic tears in the vaginal walls, causing tiny blood vessels to rupture. And that is the entrance into your bloodstream which other methods don’t provide.
The general consensus seems to be that super-absorbent tampons are the worse culprits. This is because hold so much more blood than regular sized products and they are often used when flow is not heavy enough to warrant their size. Using a larger tampon during a lighter flow can dry out the vagina and that increases the likelihood of tearing.
Even the FDA chimes in:
“Vaginal dryness and ulcerations may occur when women use tampons more absorbent than needed for the amount of their menstrual flow. Ulcerations have also been reported in women using tampons between menstrual periods to try to control excessive vaginal discharge or abnormal bleeding. Women may avoid problems by choosing a tampon with the minimum absorbency needed to control menstrual flow and using tampons only during active menstruation.”
Safer Alternatives to Tampons
There are multiple options for menstrual control that are far less dangerous than tampons. You will still want to make sure not to leave them in too long, so that bacteria doesn’t have a chance to breed in a large accumulation of blood. But there should be much less chance of the vaginal tearing which would allow the bacteria’s poison to enter your bloodstream.
Sponges come in two varieties. Sea sponges were originally used, but they have had bad press of late due to the discovery of sand and grit which can also cause abrasions in the vagina. They also tend to disintegrate over time, leaving small pieces to turn into a bacterial breeding ground.
More recently, new products have been developed which are basically one size fits all disposable tampons made from a regular sponge. Since you still need to slide them in, the possibility exists that dryness could cause vaginal tearing.
Cups can usually hold a greater amount of blood than a tampon, so they need to be emptied less often than pads and tampons need to be changed. It is advised that you wash your cup before using, then remove and wash it every four to eight hours thereafter.
There are natural gum rubber cup that can last for ten years. They come in one size for those who have given birth vaginally, and another for those who have not.
The one drawback to cups is that they are not recommended for those with latex allergies. Also, the Mayo Clinic advises you to “Check with your health care provider before using a menstrual cup if you use an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control or you’ve had toxic shock syndrome.”
Pads and panty liners made of organic cotton are available in different sizes for different amounts of flow. You can get an assortment that will last your entire period.
Period proof panties are a thing now, and quite stylish, too. They look and feel like regular underwear, but absorb up to 2 tampons worth of blood.
So there is no longer any reason to court the risk of toxic shock syndrome by using tampons. You can choose a gentler alternative, or mix and match options, for comfortable menstrual control.