There's a scene in Stranger Things that serves as a great metaphor for getting a tampon stuck inside of your body. If you're not familiar with the sci-fi show, a character named Nancy wanders through the woods and gets sucked inside of a hollow, slimy tree trunk, which traps her in a parallel universe, "the Upside-Down." After some time, her friend Jonathan helps yank her out, but it's pretty traumatic all around. And that's kind of what it's like for a wayward tampon getting stuck: It can happen if you're not careful, it's a little scary, but eventually it'll come on out.
If you're someone who uses tampons, you might be wondering how on earth this could possibly happen. It's not that supernatural, and usually people end up with "retained tampons" because they never removed their last tampon when their period ended, says Nicole Bullock, DO, FACOG, an Ob/Gyn in Abilene, TX. Or, they might have inserted a new tampon while they already had one in, Dr. Bullock says. So, one tampon is just chilling somewhere in the "Upside-Down," so to speak.
But unlike the Upside-Down, the vagina is a "closed unit," Dr. Bullock says. The vaginal canal, where a tampon sits, is only about three to five inches long, she says. In other words, a tampon is not going to swim upstream and get completely lost inside of your body — it's just not physically possible. "The tampon is in there," she says.
In most cases you'll be able to tell that you have a retained tampon because there's a foul vaginal odor and discharge, Dr. Bullock says. In fact, many people notice the odor first and then realize that a forgotten tampon is the culprit. You may also see that you have spotty amounts of blood in addition to the odor, Linda Fan, MD, FACOG, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine told Refinery29 in July. Once you've established that you have a tampon somewhere resting inside of you, then you have to get it out.
If you feel comfortable getting up in your own vagina, you can try to "gently sweep it out" on your own, Dr. Bullock says. "Feel for your cervix, then gently sweep behind there," she suggests. Keep your pelvic muscles relaxed, or try to bear down with some gentle abdominal pressure to make it easier to reach your cervix. But if you sense that you're not getting anywhere with this DIY removal, or if you have symptoms of an infection (like odor, discharge, or burning), call in the professionals (your doctor).
Do not be embarrassed about the fact that you got a tampon stuck inside of you, because Ob/Gyns see this type of thing — with condoms, Nuvarings, and more — all the time, Dr. Bullock says. "Better to address your concerns early on than risk infection," she says, adding that these lost objects are generally easy to remove using a vaginal speculum exam. "[This] will allow your gynecologist to see the tampon and remove it with a long grasping instrument," she says. Or they might use their fingers to remove it manually by grabbing the strayed tampon, which she describes as "quick, painless, albeit uncomfortable."
Perhaps this is a reminder for all tampon-users that you shouldn't be leaving them in for longer than eight hours, Dr. Bullock says. If you're prone to forgetting, set a reminder on your phone if you have to. Luckily your vagina is not a portal to an alternate universe, but it is a good idea to stay on top of changing your tampons to prevent infections. And if you do find yourself stuck with a tampon between two dimensions, just be sure to call your doctor (or a very, very good friend) to help you out.