Pads vs. Tampons: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 12, 2023
5 min read

‌Pads and tampons are two of the most common and effective ways to manage period blood. Deciding which one to use doesn’t have to be hard. Learning more about each product can help you figure out which one’s the best choice for you.

In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about the differences between pads and tampons.

‌Pads are rectangle-shaped pieces of absorbent material that you can stick onto the inside of your underwear. The material usually has small holes inside of it so it sucks the period blood into itself. This stops the blood from spilling and leaking. Pads are also called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins.

How do I choose the right pad for me? Pads can come in different sizes. If you’re just starting out, you may have to try a few sizes to see which one fits you the best. You can also choose pads based on how light or heavy your blood flow is. 

Pads can also have "wings." Wings are extra material on the sides of the pad that you can fold over the edges of your underwear to keep the pad in place and to prevent blood from spilling onto your underwear and clothing.

The labeling on your pad's packaging will usually tell you details of the size and whether it’s right for light or heavy period blood flow

How often should I change my pad? You should change your pad every 3 to 4 hours even if you’re not having heavy periods. If you have really heavy periods, you may need to change it more than every 3 to 4 hours.

When you change your pads regularly, you stop harmful germs called bacteria from growing in them. Changing pads regularly also helps to control smells.

Should I use scented pads? You should not use pads with fragrances as they're unnecessary and can irritate your vagina. Your vagina is self-cleaning and doesn't need any form of soap, chemicals, or perfume.

Scented pads and tampons can actually mess with your vagina's natural pH and cause problems including bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.

Bacterial vaginosis is a kind of vaginal inflammation that happens when bacteria found naturally in your vagina overgrow. This can cause gray, white, or green discharge, a fishy-smelling odor, itching, and burning during urination. A yeast infection is a fungal infection that can cause itching, burning, and redness in your vagina. You may have a thick, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese.

‌A tampon is made of absorbent material similar to a pad. But a tampon looks like a small tube. You have to insert it into your vagina with your fingers or an applicator that holds the tampon inside it. If you’re just starting out, you might find it easier to use an applicator which is a plastic or cardboard tube that helps you guide the tampon into your vagina. ‌

Tampons usually have a string attached to one end. This string is meant to sit outside your body so you can use it to pull it out when your tampon is full and needs changing. 

How do I choose the right tampon for me? Tampons also come in different sizes meant for both heavy and light blood flows. You may need to test a few different sizes and experiment before picking the tampon that’s right for you. 

Can a tampon get lost inside my body? It’s impossible for you to lose your tampon inside your body. The cervix — which is a tissue seen at the opening at the top of the vagina — is too tiny for your tampon to pass through.

How often should I change my tampon? You should change your tampon every 4 to 6 hours. It’s important to remember to do this because you can sometimes forget you are using one. If you keep it in for longer, it can cause harmful bacteria to grow. These bacteria can enter the body through the vagina and cause illnesses. 

It’s extremely important to change your tampon every 4 to 6 hours. Don’t ever leave a tampon in for longer — especially all day or all night. If you do this, you increase your chances of getting a serious medical condition called toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This can also happen from using pads, but it is much more rare.

Toxic shock syndrome is a life-threatening condition that happens from certain bacterial infections.

Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome include: 

  • High fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe muscle aches
  • A feeling of extreme weakness or dizziness
  • A rash that looks like a sunburn

If you have any symptoms of TSS, you should get immediate medical help. Toxic shock syndrome is treated as a medical emergency.

‌Pros. Pads are a great option for women who don’t like the idea of inserting anything inside their body. Because you can see it, it's also easy to remember when you have to change it. You can find super-absorbent pads that are very thin so you don’t have an uncomfortable feeling between your legs all the time. ‌

Even though pads can also cause toxic shock syndrome, the risk is much less compared to tampons. You should still remember to change the pads regularly.‌

Cons. You can’t wear pads as easily when you’re swimming. If you’re a woman who enjoys this activity, tampons may be a better option. Also, no matter how thin your pad is, it may be visible under tight or minimal clothing. 

‌Pros. Tampons are a great option for women who swim or do other athletic activities. They’re also less visible under clothing. Some women also prefer tampons because they're easier to carry and you don't feel them the same way you do pads. 

Cons. The risk of toxic shock syndrome is higher with tampons. Getting toxic shock syndrome through tampon usage is rare, however.

Some tips to remember for safe use of tampons include:

  • ‌Always follow the directions on the label even if you’ve used tampons before. 
  • ‌Wash your hands before and after using a tampon.
  • ‌Use the lowest absorbency tampon possible. For example, if you’re going for 6 hours without needing to change your tampon, you may need to switch to a tampon for a lighter flow. 
  • Get medical help immediately if you’re wearing a tampon and are experiencing any signs of toxic shock syndrome.

‌There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to menstrual care products. Review the pros and cons for pads and tampons and decide which one works best for you based on your lifestyle and personal choice.