HomeLifestyleFashion‘My colleague noticed the smell’: The unspoken danger of lost tampons

‘My colleague noticed the smell’: The unspoken danger of lost tampons

Meghan knew something was wrong the morning after they’d had sex. The 34-year-old from Manchester had slept with someone she met on a night out; the details were blurry, but it had been incredibly uncomfortable. “It felt really unpleasant and painful, but I didn’t think much of it.” The following week, she was on the train for a work trip when she noticed a “really horrible, pungent smell”.

“At first I thought it must be something on the train, but as the day progressed I realised the smell was following me,” she says. “I started to feel really confused, embarrassed and pretty disgusting, to be honest. It was only on the journey home later, after a colleague mentioned the smell, that it clicked.”

That was when she realised: there was a tampon stuck inside her. “I got off the train, rushed straight home and into the shower, where I managed to retrieve it after a lot of dry heaving and crying,” she recalls. “It was really traumatic. Afterwards I felt really sick. I had been experiencing a stomach ache in the days leading up to it, which then made sense.”

Meghan’s experience is the kind that anyone who menstruates has feared since puberty. Generally speaking, tampons shouldn’t be left in for longer than eight hours. While it’s not possible for a tampon to get lost inside someone, it is possible – and surprisingly common – for people to forget that one is there. In these cases “it can get stuck inside the vagina high up in one of the corner spaces beside the neck of the womb”, explains a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Most of the time, there are likely to be no long-term health implications if the tampon is removed soon enough. “But if it’s retained for a long time, it can result in pelvic infection, which spreads from the vagina to the uterus and fallopian tubes into the pelvis, which can lead to fertility problems, especially if the tube gets damaged,” adds the spokesperson. “It could also put you at risk of toxic shock syndrome [TSS].”

TSS is described by the NHS as a “rare but life-threatening condition caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins”. Symptoms can include a high fever, feeling sick, difficulty breathing, dizziness, confusion, and flu-like symptoms.

The condition made headlines recently when former Love Island star Maura Higgins described what happened when she once accidentally left a tampon inside her for three months. Speaking on ITV2’s Shopping with Keith Lemon while perusing the shelves of Boots, the 31-year-old revealed she was diagnosed with TSS when she was younger.

“I did have a very bad experience,” she told the TV presenter. “I’m not a doctor: I don’t know much about TSS, but I know you are not meant to leave a tampon inside for more than, I think, nine hours – I think that’s the max.” Higgins went on to say that the doctor found it “stuck to [her] cervix”. She added, “I was so ill. I’m not going to lie, it did [smell]. We evacuated the room.”

Although she made light of it, Higgins wanted to speak about the importance of raising awareness for TSS. “There are people that have died from that happening,” she said. “Young girls might not have noticed: maybe you went on a night out, got really drunk and forgot. These things actually do happen, and people don’t speak about it.”

Maura Higgins recently revealed she suffered from TSS

(Getty Images)

Another person it happened to is Jessica, 28, from London. She was having sex with her partner when she realised there was a tampon inside her. “He told me it felt weird and we immediately stopped,” she says. “I tried to get it out but was really struggling because of the angle. In the end my partner did it.”

Afterwards, despite the fact the tampon had been removed, Jessica started to feel unwell. “I remember seeing a lot about TSS when I was younger so I started to google the side effects and panicked as I was experiencing some of them – aching body, headache, feeling sick. I went to A&E to get checked out. It was all fine in the end; I didn’t have TSS.”

But how do you know there’s a forgotten tampon inside you if you can’t feel it or see the string? The RCOG says that “you may start experiencing or noticing offensive, foul-smelling discharge” or experiencing other symptoms to indicate that you are unwell.

If you do suspect that a tampon has got stuck inside you, the RCOG suggests trying to remove it yourself in the first instance. If you’re not able to feel anything but still have a strong suspicion that there is a tampon there, it’s best to contact your GP or local accident and emergency department. A doctor will usually be able to locate it using a speculum. Once it is removed, you might be given a course of antibiotics in case an infection has been detected.

The best way to prevent a tampon from getting stuck is to ensure you change it every eight hours. “Consider keeping an alarm alert or reminder to check and remove tampons,” says the RCOG. “And if you have had TSS before, avoid using tampons altogether.”

We need to be having more open and honest conversations about things like this

The trouble is that society attaches shame to the female body – and vaginas in particular – which can prevent people from seeking help when health issues such as this one arise. “I felt a huge sense of embarrassment when I noticed the smell,” says Meghan. “And then, when I realised what had happened, I felt anxious about knowing I’d have to try and get it out; I’d never felt so far up before, so the prospect unnerved me. I remember feeling really ashamed and disgusted in my body back then.”

Evidently, this is not just a health issue but a societal one too. Even when Higgins discusses what happened to her on TV, she recounts the story with an overriding sense of humiliation, replying, “I’m going to die!” when Lemon brings it up. Her disgust is echoed by the TV host, who jokes, “bet it f***ing stunk didn’t it?” and compares the scent to “a dead rat”.

This sense of embarrassment fosters a culture whereby people are not seeking the treatment they need. Consider the decrease in the number of people having cervical screening tests last year. Or the fact that a quarter of women who have been diagnosed with cervical cell changes feel “ashamed”. Or that many young women are even putting off smear tests due to embarrassment.

“We need to be having more open and honest conversations about things like this,” insists Meghan. “It might make people check and double check when putting in a new tampon, preventing more serious side effects.” Since the lost tampon incident, Meghan has learned to appreciate her body in a new way.

“When I removed the tampon the first time, I remember thinking, ‘so that’s what was inside of me’. It made me feel a bit more comfortable, and I’ve found things like cervical screenings a lot easier since. It’s pretty amazing really, the way your body gives you the signals you need to realise something is wrong.” When Meghan thinks about what happened now, though, the shame has dissipated. “I just think, ‘wow, my body is amazing’.”

Names have been changed

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