When I was in college, I got so sick one night that I actually wondered if I might, in fact, be dying. I was vomiting so much and for so long that I literally had to crawl to the bathroom, and I could barely talk. After a few hours, I went to the emergency room, where they took one look at me and found me a room stat.
I was in such rough shape that when they suggested a spinal tap to rule out meningitis, I didn’t bat an eye. And that long needle stuck in the middle of my back was nothing compared to the sheer misery I felt everywhere else.
While the ER docs did their triage, I told them sheepishly, “I had a tampon in for a very long time. I took it out before I came here, but could it be toxic shock syndrome?”
With some IV fluids, meds, and some rest, I eventually recovered. I went home from the hospital a few days later, and though I never got an official diagnosis, I did leave with an interesting story.
Remember that time you left a tampon in for days? That sure was something, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was something alright.
As it turns out, leaving a tampon in too long is no laughing matter. While toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is rare, it can cause serious health complications. According to the Mayo Clinic, TSS often results from toxins produced by staph bacteria, but the condition may also be caused by toxins produced by strep bacteria, and it is often associated with leaving a tampon in for longer than the recommended 4–8 hours.
After manufacturers removed certain types of high-absorbency tampons from shelves, the incidence of TSS in menstruating women declined significantly, and it currently only affects about 1 in 100,000 people a year. Symptoms of TSS can include sudden high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, a sunburn-like rash on hands and feet, confusion, and muscle aches.
While tampon boxes are pretty clear about changing your tampon regularly, not everyone takes this seriously. I would like to say I learned my lesson, but I don’t wanna lie either. Truth be told, I do sometimes leave a tampon in longer than the recommended time, and I know not one — but two — women who lost or forgot about a tampon and left it in for weeks. Yes, weeks.
According to Zoe Rodriguez, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, “The most common consequence of leaving a tampon in for too long or forgetting a tampon inside, is a very foul-smelling discharge and irregular spotting.”
Let’s just say, from what I’ve been told, “foul-smelling” is putting it mildly.
“I would work out, and I could smell myself,” one friend told me. She eventually turned to Dr. Google and buried in the could be an infection or cancer horror stories, one post suggested checking to see if there wasn’t a tampon stuck in your vagina. Well, she contorted herself every which way in the bathroom and found that forgotten (and stinky AF) tampon.
“I am not flexible by any means, but I was determined to get that out on my own,” she said. After she pulled out what appeared to be a remnant of a super-plus tampon, she called her doctor, who simply said, “Glad you got it out. We see that more often than you’d think.”
Another friend told me she “smelled fairly ripe” for a few days, but couldn’t pinpoint the source of the stench. She also had some of the other symptoms, such as extended spotting and lightheadedness, but wrote it off as having too much wine getting ready for a holiday party or a possible yeast infection. Pretty quickly, though, she said she could barely stand the smell of herself and even her husband could smell her (which is never a good sign). Dr. Google once again came through, and she started digging for the lost tampon. Once it was finally retrieved (and the gagging had stopped), so did the smell, spotting, and cramps. Go figure, huh?
While these extreme situations happened when a tampon was left in for days or weeks, one can never be too careful, right? So bottom line: Change those tampons. Often. Seriously. Because toxic shock syndrome is real, and no one wants to smell like a funky tuna fish sandwich.