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A girl's guide to tampon use

Sarah Caron is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and editor. She lives with her wonderful husband, two adorable kids and two funny beagles. Check out her food blog at Sarah's Cucina Bella.

Tampons 101

You’ve probably heard how convenient tampons are from a friend or your mom. But when you’ve never used them before, the first time can be downright frightening. Here’s what you need to know about using tampons.

Several Tampons

When I was 14, my mom bought me a box of super tampons and sent me off on a beach vacation with friends. Of course, I got my period on vacation -- and I had no idea how to use them (and was too embarrassed to ask my friend's mom). Fast forward six years, and a college friend helped me find the right tampons for me and told me how to use them. If you haven't tried one yet, you don't know how much easier managing your period can be.

What you need to know

Using a tampon isn't nearly as scary as it might sound, but being prepared is essential. "A woman needs to know her anatomy in order to get the tampon in correctly. Many women don't know that there are three holes down there, and the tampon belongs in the vagina, the middle hole," says Lissa Rankin, MD, an OB/GYN physician and author of the upcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend, due out in October 2010 from St. Martin's Press.

Rankin, who is also founder of OwningPink.com and medical director of The Owning Pink Center, an integrative medicine practice in Mill Valley, California, says that women also need to be educated on the risks of toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

According to the Mayo Clinic, TSS is a rare but serious bacterial infection associated with the use of super-absorbency tampons and contraceptive sponges. "While TSS is rare, it's not a good idea to leave a tampon in longer than six hours (eight hours at the max while you sleep). Stagnation of the tampon inside the vagina can be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria," says Rankin. So change your tampon regularly.

Benefits of using tampons

Sorry -- using tampons isn't going to make you healthier or fitter. In fact, the benefits of tampon use are related more to comfort and convenience than health. "There are no significant health benefits to tampons over pads, other than the rare women who develops vulvar irritation from rubbing caused by the pad," says Rankin.

If you are an active woman, a tampon is almost always more convenient and comfortable. (Can you imagine swimming while wearing a pad? Ew.)

How to insert a tampon

The only difficulty with using a tampon is learning how to insert it properly. Seriously. When Melissa, who asked that her last name not be used, first tried to use a tampon, she was baffled by her mom's attempt to help. "My mom sat me down on the side of her bed and drew a rough picture that looked very much like a pea to explain where to aim the white cardboard tube. I then locked myself in the bathroom for hours trying to find a position that allowed me to see if I was doing it right," she says.

The diagram just didn't help. As she put it, there were "not enough hands to hold the mirror, the tampon, myself and the tissue to wipe away the tears." Thankfully, her sister finally demonstrated how to use it.

Don't worry -- you don't need an older sister to show you though. These tips will help.

1. Know your body. Rankin's site, OwningPink.com, has a guided tour of a woman's nether regions. Check it out, so you know where to aim.

2. Read the instructions. Sure, they might not really give you a crystal-clear idea what to do, but they are still a good place to start. "While most common tampons are inserted the same way, some are different," says Rankin. Indeed, you never know what complications may arise. When Diane tried to use tampons for the first time, she accidentally bought ones without an applicator. "Manual insertion is not for first timers! It was a mess, and I ended up borrowing a pad from a counselor," she admits.

3. Get to know the tampon. Really. You are inserting this foreign object into your vagina, so take a second to understand how it works. Most tampons have an applicator, which you use to insert the tampon and throw away afterward.

4. Use trial and error. The first time will be hard, but it will get better after that. The more you use tampons, the easier it gets.

5. Finally, the real trick. One foot on the toilet and one foot on the floor really is the way to go. "Feel for the opening of your vagina. Gently push the tip of your finger inside to make sure you're in the right place," says Rankin. She also says that lubricating the tip can help it go in a bit more easily, too.

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