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The Deal With Feminine Hygiene

As you've probably noticed, puberty comes with all kinds of changes - including the way your body looks and even the way you might think it smells. These changes are a normal part of becoming a woman, but lots of girls worry about them. You may wonder what you can do to feel as clean as possible during your period, whether to use a pad or tampon, and if you should use any feminine products like douches or deodorant sprays.

Pads and Tampons
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Once you begin menstruating, you'll need to use something to soak up the menstrual blood - either a pad or a tampon. Pads are made of layers of cotton, and they are sometimes also called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins. Some have extra material on the sides (called "wings") that fold over the edges of your underwear to better 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 for heavier or lighter menstrual periods or for day or nighttime use. Some pads come with a deodorant or deodorizing substance in them. All pads have a sticky strip on the bottom that helps them to adhere to your underwear.

Pads are easy to use: 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), and you're done. It's best to change pads every 3 or 4 hours, even when you're not menstruating very much. Why? Because 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. Once you've removed your pad, wrap it in toilet paper and put it in the trash can (or if you're in school, in a special disposal box that's found in most stalls). Don't try to flush a pad down the toilet - they're too big and may back up the toilet and make a huge (embarrassing!) mess.

Another choice for feminine protection during your menstrual period is to use tampons. A tampon is also made of cotton, but it's compressed into a tiny tubular shape. Unlike a pad, which catches menstrual blood after it leaves the body, tampons absorb blood from inside the vagina. Like pads, tampons come in different sizes for heavier and lighter periods, and they can also come in deodorizing scents. Tampons are also available with or without applicators - they can either be inserted into the vagina using a special cardboard or plastic tube-like applicator or with just your fingers.

Tampons are also easy to use, but you do need to learn how to put them in. Follow the directions that come with the tampons carefully, and be sure to relax. Some girls find that using tampons with applicators is much easier because the applicator tube gives them something to hold onto and helps them guide it properly into the vagina.

Many girls who are using tampons for the first time worry about things like whether the tampon will get lost inside them or whether a virgin can use a tampon. Luckily, tampons can't ever get lost inside you - the opening of the cervix (located at the top of the vagina) is just too tiny for a tampon to get through. Most tampons 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. Virgins can certainly use tampons with no problem - many girls do - and a girl who uses a tampon won't lose her virginity that way.

A tampon needs to be changed every 4 to 6 hours or when it's saturated with blood. Because you can't see it as you would with a pad, you'll need to remember when it's time to change, or spotting and leakage will occur on your underwear. Pull gently on the string that is attached to the end of the tampon, pull it out, wrap it in toilet paper, and throw it in the trash. Don't flush it in the toilet unless it says on the box that it's flushable.

If it's time to change your tampon and you can't find the string, don't worry! A tampon can't get lost inside you, remember? You'll need to reach in with your fingers to find it. It may take a minute to do because the string might be a bit hard to grab.

A final word 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. If you do, you put yourself at risk for a rare, but very dangerous disease called toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

TSS results from a bacterial infection that may occur when using certain super absorbent tampons, especially if they are left in longer than is recommended. Bacteria (certain strains of Staphylococcus and Streptococcus) can grow within the tampon, enter the body from inside your vagina, then invade the bloodstream, releasing toxins that can cause a very severe, and occasionally life-threatening, illness.

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 an adult immediately. Have someone take you to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible. Your body can go into shock with TSS if you wait 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.

When deciding whether to use pads or tampons, it's really up to you. Some girls like tampons because they can go swimming with no problem, and they are easy to store in a purse or pocket. Another advantage to tampons is that they can't be felt because they're inside the body (unlike a pad, which may feel bulky to some girls). Other girls like pads because they are easy to use, and you don't need to remind yourself to change them. 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 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.

Douches and Feminine Sprays
Douches (from the French word for "wash") and feminine sprays (or deodorants) supposedly keep a woman's vaginal area smelling fresh and clean. Douching refers to washing out the vagina, usually with a prepackaged mix of fluids. For a lot of girls who are just starting to deal with menstrual periods and other vaginal secretions, these products sound appealing - many girls wonder if they smell or whether people will notice they have their periods. The truth is, under usual circumstances, no one ever smells any odors from a girl's vagina.

In fact, unless a doctor says so, you never need to douche - and feminine sprays and deodorants aren't a good idea either. Feminine sprays and douches are often heavily perfumed and can lead to allergic reactions or even infections in the vagina. Your vagina has its own natural cleaning system that flushes out bacteria, so you don't need to add any chemicals to help it.

Some infections, such as bacterial vaginosis, can lead to an unpleasant fishy odor (again, if a girl has an infection, it's unlikely that people around her will notice a smell, even if she does). The treatment for odors caused by infections is not a spray, but a prescription medication that treats the infection rather than covering it up. If you think you may have a problem, see a doctor or gynecologist right away. As far as your periods go, if you change your pads or tampons frequently and wear clean clothes, no one can ever smell that either.

It's easy to keep your vagina clean without making it smell like a flower shop. Washing every day with a mild soap and plenty of warm water will do the trick. Warm bathing rather than showering daily during your period may reduce menstrual cramps and give you reassurance about feeling clean. During your period, change your pads or tampons often and change your underwear if you happen to soak through your pad or tampon.

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