Everything we’re not told about periods

On average, cis women will have 450 periods in their lifetime. Quite a few, huh? Then why do we know so little about them? Why isn’t it more well known that 1 in 6 UK women, or members of their families, are affected by period poverty – that’s 17% of the UK’s population after all. 

Didn’t realise it was that bad? Don’t worry, 45% of the population aren’t aware either. 

Period poverty is typically defined as:

‘a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints’.

Thankfully, the government has finally done something about it.

Primary schools, secondary schools and 16-19 education organisations in the UK are able to ‘opt-in’ to a government funded scheme. Pupils will have access to a range of period products, including period pads; applicator and non-applicator tampons; reusable period pads; environmentally friendly periods pads; and menstrual cups.

I’m not trying to take away from that – but yet another thing we don’t know is how bad period products are for our bodies and how they can lead to debilitating infections, such as Toxic Shock Syndrome. 

TSS is something that the majority of us have heard about, but do we actually know what it is?

According to the NHS website, Toxic Shock Syndrome is:

‘a rare but life-threatening condition caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins’.

It’s often believed that tampons are the main reason for TSS, but that is far from true. It can also affect men, children and women who aren’t menstruating. 

The condition is caused by staphylococcus or streptococcus bacteria, which is usually found on skin, in the nose or mouth. Here, they cause no harm, but it’s when they delve deeper into the body that they become extremely harmful; they release toxins that not only damage tissue, but can also stop organs working.

So how are tampons linked to TSS? Tampons can increase your risk of getting the condition; they are not the prime reason for getting it. 

20-50% of people who contract the condition will have no predisposing risk factors, apart from tampons, other things that can increase your chances include:

  • Childbirth
  • Using female barrier contraceptives, like the diaphragm or cap
  • Using nasal packing to treat a nosebleed
  • Cuts, burns, boils, insect bites or wounds after surgery
  • Having a staphylococcal or streptococcal infection, like a throat infection, impetigo or cellulitis. 

It’s also emerging that other period products, such as sanitary pads and menstrual cups, can also increase your chance of getting TSS.

Last year, 36 year-old Sandrine Graneau got TSS from her menstrual cup; she ended up having both of her feet amputated and more than 18 bones removed from her hands. In an interview, she stated that the problem is that:

‘Information does vary. The instructions [say] that we can keep them in for 4, 6, 8 or 12 hours’.

Sandrine started to feel light pain but this soon intensified. The symptoms of TSS come on very suddenly, they are:

  • Pain
  • High fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Chills
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing

The NHS recommends that even if you only have a few of these symptoms, you should contact your GP, 111 or an out-of-hours centre. Due to the condition’s rarity, it is likely that you don’t have TSS, but it is better to be safe than sorry. You should inform whoever you speak to if you’ve been wearing a tampon and have had a recent skin infection or injury. 

There are some ways that you can prevent TSS, the NHS recommends:

  • Treat wounds and burns quickly
  • Alternate between tampons, sanitary pads and panty liners during your period
  • Change tampons regularly (every 4-8 hours)
  • When using a tampon overnight, insert a fresh one just before you go to sleep and change it as soon as you wake up
  • Always wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon
  • Use tampons that have the lowest absorbency that is adequate for your period
  • When using female barrier contraception, read the instructions in regards to how long it is safe to leave it in.

We need to start educating ourselves to have a better understanding about what can happen to our bodies. So next time you go to insert a tampon, make sure to check the expiry date (yep, another thing they don’t tell us)…

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