How Dangerous Is It to Leave a Tampon in Your Vagina?

Here's what gynecologists who retrieve lost or stuck tampons want you to know.

Keeping a tampon in for longer than the four to eight hours advised by the Food and Drug Administration is something just about every person is guilty of at some point or another. But forgetting to take your tampon out altogether? That's a different story.

Accidentally leaving a tampon inside your vagina for days or even weeks, however, is pretty common, according to gynecologists. And as gross as it sounds, it may not be as risky to your health as you'd think. "I've pulled a tampon out of a patient after three weeks and she was still okay," says Leena Nathan, MD, ob-gyn at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

If it's never happened to you, you're probably wondering how it could get lost without someone knowing. What comes up must come down, right? Not always. The tampon can get lodged high up near the cervix, the string tucked out of view and out of reach.

A tampon that's overstayed its welcome isn't a pleasant thing to encounter, but it won't necessarily cause any health issues. The biggest risk is vaginitis, explains Dr. Nathan. Vaginitis is an inflammation of the vagina, and it can stem from a variety of causes—including the bacteria that glom onto the tampon.

A more serious issue is toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This is a potentially deadly condition triggered when Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacteria on the tampon emits toxins that swiftly overwhelm your body, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). However, TSS is pretty unlikely. "There's a possibility of developing toxic shock syndrome, but the risk of TSS is about 1 in 100,000," when tampons are used properly, says Dr. Nathan. "So it's rare even if the tampon is left in for a longer period of time," Dr. Nathan adds.

How do you know if you've got a missing tampon up there? The biggest giveaway is a foul-smelling discharge. "The key is to notice if the discharge is pink, green, yellow, or brownish and is accompanied by an odor," says Christine Greves, MD, ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida. This discharge can show up within a few days or take as long as a couple of weeks—which means you may not make the connection that a forgotten tampon is the cause.

If these symptoms appear, "ask yourself if a rash, fever, or pain is also present," recommends Dr. Greves. The last three symptoms are signs of TSS. A rash from TSS looks like a sunburn, according to NORD, and often occurs on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Again, this is a rare condition, but it's better to play it safe and call your healthcare provider or head to the ER and be checked out, since it moves fast in your system.

Other TSS symptoms, according to NORD, can include muscle aches or digestive symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. It can also lead to dizziness, confusion, or disorientation.

If you're only dealing with odor and/or discharge, and you're starting to fuzzily recall that hmm, maybe you didn't remove the last tampon you put in before your period ended, use your fingers to feel around for it. Should you detect it, "make sure to remove the entire tampon," says Dr. Greves. Once you get over your shock and surprise, of course. If there is still odor and discharge afterward, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist to see if you have an infection that needs treatment.

Can't get it out on your own? Call your gynecologist and explain the situation—they've probably retrieved many a lost tampon in their exam room and it's really not a big deal.

"It happens!" says Dr. Greves. "It's important to let women know they shouldn't be embarrassed about it. I'm actually grateful when they come in so that it gets removed and I can make sure everything is okay."

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