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A tampon is a mass of absorbent material used by women inserted into a body cavity or wound to absorb bodily fluid. The most common type in daily use (also the main focus of this article) is designed to be inserted into the vagina during menstruation to absorb the flow of menstrual fluid. Several countries—including the United States, under the banner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—regulate tampons as medical devices. In the United States, tampons are a Class II medical device. The word "tampon" originated from the medieval French word tampion, meaning a piece of cloth to stop a hole, a stamp, plug, or stopper.
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."
Dr. Earle Haas patented the first modern tampon with the tube-within-a-tube applicator. Gertrude Tendrich bought the patent and founded Tampax in 1933.
During her study of female anatomy, German gynecologist Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag developed the digital style of tampon along with her husband Kyle Lucherini. In the late 1940s, Dr. Carl Hahn, together with Heinz Mittag, worked on the mass production of this tampon. Dr. Hahn sold his company, which included the digital-style tampon range, to Johnson and Johnson in 1974.
In regards to political statements around the use of tampons, the Australian introduction of a 10% Goods and Service Tax (GST) did not exempt tampons as it did for numerous medical items. However; lubricant, condoms, and incontinence pads were regarded as essential and no GST is charged for these items. Prior to the introduction of GST, luxury tax applied to tampons in several States 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 petalled.
The tampon itself sits inside the outer tube, near the open end. The inner tube is encased inside the outer tube and held in place by a locking mechanism. The outer tube is inserted into the vagina, then the inner tube is pushed into the outer tube (typically using a finger) pushing the tampon through and into the vagina.
Digital or non-applicator tampons are tampons sold without applicators; these are simply unwrapped and pushed into the vagina with the fingers. Tampons can range in length from 38 mm to 114 mm.
Tampons are available in several absorbency ratings, which are consistent across manufacturers in the U.S.:
- Junior absorbency: 6 grams and under
- Regular absorbency: 6 to 9 grams
- Super absorbency: 9 to 12 grams
- Super Plus absorbency 12 to 15 grams
- Ultra absorbency 15–18 grams
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 absorbancy. The machine uses a condom into which the tampon is inserted, and synthetic menstrual fluid is fed into the test chamber.
Cordless tampons are tampons without a string that fulfill the same function as normal tampons. They look like a small sponge, and are implemented inside the vagina and close off the neck of the uterus so that no blood enters the vagina. The tampons are placed very far into the vagina, and can remain inserted during sexual intercourse, as opposed to a menstrual cup. The tampons do not protect against sexually transmitted disease nor pregnancies.
These tampons are not visible when worn, so the user can go swimming or participate in any other sport and they are available either dry or wet. A wet cordless tampon is packed wet and can be used directly, while the use of a dry tampon requires a lubricant. Some varieties 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 or menstrual pad is an absorbent item 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 to collect menstrual fluid for up to 12 hours. Unlike tampons and pads, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it, thus not affecting the vagina's natural lubrication. They are usually made from medical grade silicone.
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/menstrual cycle.
Toxic shock syndrome
Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Medical Center, who helped determine that tampons were behind toxic shock syndrome (TSS) cases in the early 1980s, 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 so highly absorbent that they pose the risk of absorbing the vagina's natural discharge and upsetting its natural moisture balance, which is what enables 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
Alternatives to tampons include menstrual cups, pads, and sea sponges. However, sea sponges are technically no longer allowed to be sold as menstrual aids. A 1980 study by the University of Iowa found commercially sold sea sponges to contain sand, grit, and bacteria; therefore, sea sponges could also potentially cause toxic shock syndrome.
Environment and waste
Ecological impact on the environment varies according to disposal method (whether they are flushed down the toilet or placed in the bin). Factors such as tampon composition and disposal method will impact on water treatment systems or garbage processing in the area.
- Definition and etymology of tampon
- Cheyne, William Watson (1885) Manual of the antiseptic treatment of wounds, J. H. Vail, pp. 107–109.
- A Short History of Periods
- "A new generation faces toxic shock syndrome". The Seattle Times. January 26, 2005.
- Finley, Harry (1998)(2001). The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Retrieved December 12, 2003 from http://www.mum.org/comtampons.htm
- Khela, Bal (November 26, 1999). The Women's Environmental Network. Retrieved December 13, 2003 from http://www.wen.org.uk/gen_eng/Genetics/tampon1.htm
- Meadows, Michelle (March–April, 2000). Tampon safety: TSS now rare, but women should still take care. FDA Consumer magazine.
- 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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