Whether you’ve Googled this late at night or texted a friend in a panic, we’ve all tried to find the quick and easy answer to this question at one point or another. 

The short answer: 8 hours. Why? Because after 8 hours, your risk of infection increases. To err on the side of caution, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends you change your tampon every 4-6 hours. 

What happens if you leave a tampon in for too long?

Just as we’ve all wondered about how long we can keep a tampon in, we’ve also all probably panicked — or at least I know I have — about what will happen if and when we forget to take a tampon out for a prolonged period of time. 

As stated above, leaving your tampon in for longer than 8 hours increases your risk for infection. This can include anything from vaginal irritation to toxic shock syndrome (TSS)

When a tampon is kept in your body for longer than the suggested time frame, it becomes more susceptible to producing toxins that can enter the bloodstream through your vaginal lining or uterus. This is how TSS develops.

What does toxic shock syndrome feel like? 

Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome may include high fever, low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a sunburn-type rash. Although TSS is rare these days, largely in part due to the FDA’s new time guidelines for tampon usage, if you show any of these symptoms you should seek medical care immediately. 

Treatment for TSS is dependent on your personal age and medical history and the severity of symptoms. Depending on what you need, you might receive intravenous antibiotics and/or fluids to prevent organ damage, heart medications, dialysis, or oxygen. 

Other potential symptoms to look out for

Some more common, less-threatening infections that can occur due to prolonged use of a single tampon are vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and genital contact allergy. 

Vaginitis is a term that refers to a variety of disorders caused by bacteria or yeast in the vagina that can cause inflammation or infection. Common symptoms of vaginitis include itching, burning, and/or abnormal discharge. 

BV is also a type of vaginitis and is caused by a change in vaginal bacteria. Symptoms include abnormal or smelly discharge, itching, burning, or just general vaginal irritation. 

Some women might even experience allergic reactions to tampons, particularly after prolonged use. You might have itching, soreness, or rashes from leaving a tampon in too long. 

As always, if you experience any of these symptoms, reach out to your healthcare provider. Most of these symptoms will go away with alternative hygiene products, changing your tampon more frequently, or antibiotics. 

What about swimming or sleeping with a tampon in?

Even when you submerge in water, your tampon should only absorb a small amount of water. So, suggested time guidelines remain the same. You might feel more comfortable, however, changing your tampon during breaks from the water.

If you still feel uncomfortable with the idea of your cotton tampon absorbing some water, you can always use alternative hygiene products, such as menstrual cups or discs

Be the expert in you.

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Now, for sleeping. Really only you can be the judge of that! While we’re meant to get a healthy 8 hours of sleep per night, this often is not the case for many people. So, if you sleep 8 hours or less, then, really you’re fine to sleep in your tampon.

Many women feel more comfortable switching out their daily tampon for a nighttime pad or liner. This is certainly the better option if you get more than hours of sleep per night. 

The 411 on tampon usage

While TSS is rare, you can definitely contract other infections from leaving a tampon in for too long — aka longer than 8 hours. To be extra safe, set an alarm on your phone to switch out your hygiene product every 4-6 hours. 

If you think you may have left a tampon in for too long, whether that’s longer than 8 hours or just too long for your own body, contact your healthcare provider and get your symptoms addressed!

Brighid Flynn is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband and puppy. She is just beginning her journey toward motherhood.