We need to have a talk about bacterial infections and how long it’s safe to leave things in your vagina. There are some women who are afraid to use tampons for longer than an awards-show broadcast and then, apparently, there are others who choose to plunge several tiny satchels of herbs into their gravy boats and leave them there for three entire days in the name of detoxing.
Proponents of these so-called womb pearls say that the different herb cocktails remove toxins that might “get stuck” in your womb. In doing so, they’ll help cure infections like bacterial vaginosis or even chronic health conditions like endometriosis. Users are instructed to insert three pearls and leave them in for 72 hours, after which time, your womb will magically expel all of the nasties it was harboring. But as San Francisco ob-gyn Jen Gunter, M.D., explained on her blog, these pearls — which are sold on holistic wellness sites, Etsy, and Amazon — put women at risk of developing even more infections, or worse, a case of potentially life-threatening toxic shock syndrome.
TSS is a complication of a bacterial infection that’s been linked to tampons, but there are many other risk factors. In order for a person to develop TSS, they’d need to have a specific strain of staph bacteria (staphylococcus aureus) in or on their body, and that staph would need a good place to hang out and multiply. That means you can get TSS from nosebleed-packing if you have staph in your nose, or from a tampon if you have staph in your vaginal flora.
This is why both doctors and tampon manufacturers advise that women change their tampons at least every eight hours and use the lowest absorbency possible. (If you’re going to bed and think you’ll sleep longer than that, it’s best to use a pad.) Some women think menstrual cups are safer than tampons when it comes to TSS risk because they collect rather than absorb blood, but it seems like they’re not a fail-safe.
In October, the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases & Medical Microbiology published a case report of a 37-year-old woman who developed TSS about ten days after using a menstrual cup for the first time. This is believed to be the first case of menstrual TSS associated with a cup. The authors theorize that menstrual blood itself could promote staph growth, too. Women should empty and wash reusable cups at least every 12 hours.
Now back to womb pearls: The recommended 72 hours is six times as long as you’re supposed to wear a cup and nine times as long as a tampon. That’s a recipe for infection. But isn’t the discharge proof that they work, you might ask. Dr. Gunter wrote on her blog that the vagina creates more discharge in response to irritation, infection, or an absence of good bacteria — all of which are possible triggers here. Even natural ingredients like herbs could damage good bacteria or cause irritation to your vaginal lining, which ironically could lead to an infection.