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A tampon is a cylindrical mass of absorbent material, primarily used as a feminine hygiene product. Historically, the word "tampon" originated from the medieval French word “tampion,” meaning a piece of cloth to stop a hole, a stamp, plug, or stopper. At present, tampons are designed to be easily inserted into the vagina during menstruation and absorb the user’s menstrual flow. Under the banner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), several countries regulate tampons as medical devices. In the United States, they are considered to be a Class II medical device.
Women have used tampons during menstruation for thousands of years. In her book Everything You Must Know About Tampons (1981), Nancy Friedman writes "[T]here is evidence of tampon use throughout history in a multitude of cultures. The oldest printed medical document, papyrus ebers, refers to the use of soft papyrus tampons by Egyptian women in the fifteenth century B.C. Roman women used wool tampons. Women in ancient Japan fashioned tampons out of paper, held them in place with a bandage, and changed them 10 to 12 times a day. Traditional Hawaiian women used the furry part of a native fern called hapu'u; and grasses, mosses and other plants are still used by women in parts of Asia and Africa."
Drs. Earle Haas and Michael Dunn patented the first modern tampon Tampax with the tube-within-a-tube applicator. Gertrude Tendrich bought the patent rights to Haas company trademark Tampax and started as a seller and spokesperson in 1933. Gertrich hired women to manufacture the item and then hired two salesmen to market the product to drugstores in Colorado and Wyoming and nurses to give public lectures on the benefits of the creation and was also instrumental in instituting newspapers to run public advertisements.
During her study of female anatomy, German gynecologist Dr. Judith Esser Mittag, along with her husband Kyle Lucherini, developed a digital style tampon, which was made to be inserted without an applicator. In the late 1940s, Dr. Carl Hahn, together with Heinz Mittag, worked on the mass production of this tampon. Dr. Hahn sold his company to Johnson and Johnson in 1974.
Several political statements have been made in regards to tampon use. In 2000, a 10% Goods and Service Tax (GST) was introduced in Australia. While lubricant, condoms, incontinence pads and numerous medical items were regarded as essential and exempt from the tax, tampons continue to be charged GST. Prior to the introduction of GST, several states also applied a luxury tax to tampons at a higher rate than GST. Specific petitions such as "Axe the Tampon Tax" have been created to oppose this tax, although, no change has been made.
Design and packaging
Tampons come in various shapes and colors, which are related to their absorbency ratings and packaging. The outward appearance of a tampon is similar for all brands, but their absorbency varies. The two main differences are in the way the tampon expands when in use; for example applicator tampons such as Tampax tampons and Natracare tampons will expand axially (increase in length), while OB, Natracare and Lil-lets digital tampons will expand radially (increase in diameter). Most tampons have a cord for removal and some have an additional outer cover to aid insertion and withdrawal. Some women prefer to use a tampon which is contained within an applicator to further aid insertion. The majority of tampons sold are made of rayon, or a blend of rayon and cotton. Organic cotton tampons are made from only 100% cotton. Tampons are sold individually wrapped to keep them clean.
Tampon applicators may be made of plastic or cardboard, and are similar in design to a syringe. The applicator consists of two tubes, an "outer," or barrel, and "inner," or plunger. The outer tube has a smooth surface to aid insertion and sometimes comes with a rounded end that is petaled.
Tampons are available in several absorbency ratings, which are consistent across manufacturers in the U.S.:
- Junior absorbency: 6 g and under
- Regular absorbency: 6 to 9 g
- Super absorbency: 9 to 12 g
- Super Plus absorbency 12 to 15 g
- Ultra absorbency 15–18 g
In the UK absorbencies range as follows:
- Lite/Lites/Light (light flow) 6 g and under
- Regular/Normal (light to medium flow) 6–9 g
- Super (medium to heavy flow) 9–12 g
- Super Plus (heavy flow) 12–15 g
- Super Plus Extra (very heavy flow) 15–18 g
A piece of test equipment referred to as a Syngina (short for synthetic Vagina) is usually used to test absorbency. The machine uses a condom into which the tampon is inserted, and synthetic menstrual fluid is fed into the test chamber.
Cordless tampons fulfill the same function as normal tampons, but are made without a removal string. They look like a small sponge and are used to close off the neck of the uterus, preventing blood from entering the vagina. These tampons are placed very far into the vagina, and can remain inserted during sexual intercourse, as opposed to a menstrual cup. As with all tampons, cordless tampons do not protect against sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy.
Cordless tampons are not visible when worn, making them ideal for activities such as swimming. There are also wet and dry varieties on the market. Wet cordless tampons are packed wet and can be used directly, while dry tampons may require a lubricant. Some versions have a small hole in the tampon to ease its removal. However, all tampons (cordless or otherwise) absorb vital vaginal lubrication during menstruation.
A sanitary pad, sanitary napkin, or menstrual pad is an absorbent item worn inside the underwear but outside the genitalia. A pad can be worn by a woman while she is menstruating, recovering from vaginal surgery, or any other situation where it is necessary to absorb a flow of blood from a woman's vagina externally.
A menstrual cup is a reusable flexible cup or barrier worn entirely inside the vagina during menstruation. They are usually made from medical grade silicone and can collect menstrual fluid for up to 12 hours. Unlike tampons and pads, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. As a result, the cup does not affect the vagina's natural lubrication.
A softcup is similar to a menstrual cup in the sense that it is a flexible cup or barrier worn inside the vagina during menstruation. However, these cups are disposable after each use or menstrual cycle.
Toxic shock syndrome
Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Medical Center, helped determine that tampons were behind toxic shock syndrome (TSS) cases in the early 1980s. Tiero blames the introduction of higher-absorbency tampons in 1978, as well as the relatively recent decision by manufacturers to recommend that tampons can be worn overnight, for increased incidences of toxic shock syndrome. Materials used in most modern tampons are highly absorbent, which poses the risk of upsetting the vagina's natural moisture balance, causing toxic shock syndrome to occur. The U.S. FDA suggests the following guidelines for decreasing the risk of contracting TSS when using tampons:
- Follow package directions for insertion
- Choose the lowest absorbency needed for one's flow
- Consider using cotton or cloth tampons rather than rayon
- Change the tampon at least every 4 to 6 hours
- Alternate between tampons and pads
- Avoid tampon usage overnight or when sleeping
- Increase awareness of the warning signs of toxic shock syndrome and other tampon-associated health risks
Although sea sponges are no longer marketed as menstrual aids, it may be noted that a study by the University of Iowa in 1980 found that commercially sold sea sponges contained sand, grit, and bacteria. Subsequently, sea sponges could also potentially cause toxic shock syndrome.
Environment and waste
Ecological impact varies according to disposal method (whether a tampon is flushed down the toilet or placed in the bin). Factors such as tampon composition will likewise impact water treatment systems or garbage processing. The light string commonly attached to a tampon, when flushed, may catch and block smaller diameter residential sewer pipes.
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- Finley, Harry (1998)(2001). The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Retrieved December 12, 2003 from http://www.mum.org/comtampons.htm
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- Sanpro. (April 8, 2003). The Women's Environmental Network. Retrieved December 13, 2003 from http://www.wen.org.uk/sanpro/sanpro.htm
- Truths and myths about tampons http://www.snopes.com/toxins/tampon.htm
- Using a Toilet for Tampon Disposal
- Practicing Proper Sanitary Napkin Disposal
- The effects of lactic acid bacteria: Bacterial Vaginosis: a public health review, Marianne Morris et al., British Journal of Obstetrics and Gyneocology, 2001, Bacterial Vaginosis as a risk factor for preterm delivery: A meta analysis, Harld Leitisch et al., General Obstetrics and Gynecology Obstetrics, 2003.
- An alternative to tampons, the Mooncup
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