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Pediatrician knowledge of tampon safety is low



Most pediatricians do not discuss proper tampon use and safety with their adolescent female patients, and a remarkably high proportion of them lack adequate knowledge themselves about the topic, a new survey-based study found.

Doctor talking with teen girl. Rawpixel/Thinkstock

“Significant knowledge gaps [were] noted, for instance, [such as] the maximum time a tampon can safely remain in the body,” Miriam Singer of Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York told attendees of the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.

More than 80% of females aged 17-21 years have used tampons by themselves or with pads, Ms. Singer noted in her background information, yet many teens have low knowledge about their use and safety.

Past research has found that only 35% of high school junior and senior girls heard about tampon use from their mothers, yet many of these mothers showed low knowledge about proper tampon use as well. That same research found that less than 15% of girls aged 10-19 years reported getting information from a health professional about products for menstruation despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to instruct girls on feminine hygiene product usage.

Other research has found minimal to no education about menstruation in schools “due to time constraints and stigma associated with menstruation,” Ms. Singer said.

She and her colleagues emailed 2,500 AAP members in November-December 2018 a 53-question online questionnaire about their self-rated and measured knowledge of proper tampon usage and safety and how frequently they discussed tampons with their female adolescent patients. The survey included questions asking pediatricians to self-rate their knowledge about tampon use and safety on a Likert scale of 1 (not at all knowledgeable) to 5 (extremely knowledgeable).

Two incentives provided for completing the survey were a Feminine Hygiene Fact Sheet offered in the first email and an ADHD Medication Guide offered in the third and final email.

Among the 518 pediatricians who responded (21% response rate), 462 met the inclusion criteria of being a primary care pediatrician currently practicing in the United States. Most were women (79%) and white (79%). Just over half of the pediatricians worked only in private practice (54%) and in a suburban area (52%). About a quarter (26%) were in an urban area and 20% in a rural area. Distribution of years in practice (from 1-5 years to over 25 years in 5-year increments) was fairly even across respondents.

Only 9% of respondents reported they very often or almost always talk to their female adolescent patients about how to insert a tampon. The most common tampon-related conversation pediatricians reported was how often to change tampons, which only 35% of respondents said they very often or almost always do.

Yet a similar proportion, 36%, rarely or almost never discuss how often to change tampons, and 62% said they rarely or almost never discuss how to insert a tampon or talk about using tampons while sleeping. Half of respondents (51%) almost never discuss using tampons while swimming (only 21% very often or almost always do), and 77% have not discussed how tampons might affect the hymen with their patients.

More pediatricians (36%) reported almost never discussing the risks of tampon use with female teens than those who sometimes (32%) or very often/almost always (31%) discussed risks.

Respondents also were generally much more willing to discuss tampons with older adolescents than younger ones. Only 18% of respondents said they were highly likely to discuss them with 12- and 13-year-olds, compared with almost twice as many (33%) who would discuss tampons with 16- and 17-year-olds (P less than .001).

Male pediatricians were significantly less likely to discuss any of these topics with their female adolescent patients than female pediatricians (P less than .001 for all questions except risks [P = .01] and hymen [P = .04]). They also rated their knowledge about tampons as significantly lower than self ratings by female pediatricians (P less than .001). Less than half of pediatricians (43%) rated their knowledge about tampons as high or very high, and one in five (20%) rated it as low.

Actual measured knowledge reflected the self-ratings, but still revealed substantial gaps in knowledge among male and female providers. Just over half of male pediatricians (52%) answered all questions about tampon use and safety correctly; however, female pediatricians were only slightly better, with 71% answering all questions correctly (P less than .001). Less than half of male and female pediatricians knew the maximum time a tampon could stay in before it should be removed to reduce risk of toxic shock syndrome (8 hours).

The only two questions that more than half of male pediatricians answered correctly were that girls can swim in the ocean while wearing a tampon and that it can, rarely but not typically, tear the hymen. Less than half knew girls could sleep while wearing a tampon and that a girl could start using a tampon with her first menstruation.

More than half of female pediatricians answered all these questions correctly, although only about two-thirds gave correct answers on how tampons can affect the hymen (the only question that more male pediatricians than female answered correctly), whether a girl can sleep in a tampon, and that patients should use the lowest effective absorbency tampon to minimize toxic shock syndrome risk.

Although the study is limited by a nonvalidated knowledge assessment instrument, self-reporting and potential selection bias means the study may not accurately represent U.S. primary care pediatricians nationwide; however, the findings still demonstrate notably low self-rated and measured knowledge about tampons.

“Given the AAP’s recommendation that pediatricians instruct girls on the use of feminine products, pediatricians must take steps to ensure they are educating patients about tampons,” Ms. Singer said. She also recommended the development of web-based resources targeting the improvement of pediatrician knowledge about tampon use and safety, and the need for the AAP to raise awareness about the importance of discussing tampons with female adolescent patients.

The study did not use external funding, and the authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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