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How long will your period protection really last?

The next time you’re complaining about being “on the rag,” take a minute to think about when women really were on the rag – literally. And before that, do you know what women used to sop up their monthly flow? Animal pelts, mosses, and sea sponges were all popular options. Talk about green hygiene! Today’s choices offer greater comfort and convenience, for sure. But to avoid messy leaks and maintain good health, make sure you know how often to change your tampons, pads, or cups.

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You really should change tampons “every four to eight hours,” says Lisa Masterson, MD, OB/GYN, of The Doctors. “There are different sizes for different flow, because there are different flows during your cycle. There’s the light, the medium, the extra. And toward the end, use a panty liner or something like that. If you’re actually going through an extra or a super every hour, then [you] need to see your doctor.”

If you’re not sure what size tampon to use, a good rule of thumb is to use a higher absorbency if your tampon gets fully saturated and needs to be changed before four hours. On the flip side, if your tampon is not saturated when you change it four to eight hours later, consider using a lower absorbency.

In all cases, never leave a tampon in for more than eight hours. You do not want to let your tampon get over-saturated. Overly saturated tampons can lead to bacterial growth, which may result in life-threatening Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).

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Sanitary pads

While sanitary pads generally require more frequent changes than tampons, there is no associated risk of TSS, and some women prefer not to insert anything inside their vaginas during their periods. Just make sure pads are changed before they overflow and cause embarrassing leaks.

Like tampons, your choices of sanitary pads are many. You may want to experiment with different shapes, absorbency levels, and thicknesses to determine which pads work best with your body shape and flow level. Using different absorbencies throughout the course of your period will maximize the effectiveness of the pad, as well as your comfort. For nighttime, choose a longer pad or one made specifically for overnight use to give you the coverage you need.

Find the schedule that works best for you – generally, every two to three hours is a good rule of thumb – and stick to it. If you know you won’t be able to change your pad according to schedule, then use a thicker pad to give yourself some additional absorbency.

Choosing the right protection for your period

Menstrual cups

If you want to skip the strings and wings, menstrual cups are a convenient alternative to tampons and pads. These cups are inserted entirely inside the vagina, and collect menstrual flow in a small cup. While the frequency of emptying the cup depends on your flow, most menstrual cups can be worn for up to 12 hours. If you’re trying a menstrual cup for the first time, check the cup before 12 hours to determine if you need to empty it more frequently.

Menstrual cups come in reusable and disposable options. Reusable cups can be washed in between uses, and then re-inserted. Disposable options are either single use, or washed and re-used through an entire menstrual cycle, then discarded.

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