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In humanitarian disasters, women and people who menstruate might not have the necessary items to manage their periods safely. It’s hard to plan ahead if you need to leave your home in a hurry. And you might not be able to carry your usual items. Your period can create extra worry during an already traumatic time.
Here’s some helpful advice from Dr. Maria Corniero, an OB-GYN (obstetrician and gynecologist) who works with Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders), a humanitarian medical organization that helps people in conflict zones.
DIY menstrual pads: How to make your own pads
If you don’t have pads or tampons, it’s actually easier than you might think to make your own reusable pad. “Take advantage of an old clean cotton T-shirt (or any cotton material),” suggests Dr. Corniero. Simply cut out a few strips and layer them in your underwear.
Cotton is the best material for DIY pads because it’s a natural, breathable fabric, she adds. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and lace, can irritate the delicate skin around your genitals — and make vaginal infections more likely.
Change your homemade pad every 4 to 8 hours, depending on the amount of bleeding, Dr. Corniero advises. And before reusing, clean it with water (ideally hot water) and soap. The pad might still look stained afterward, but that’s normal. Just be sure to wash the pad until the water runs clear.
Hydrogen peroxide is also an ideal cleaning solution if you have it. Don’t use harsh chemicals such as chlorine bleach or lye (aka caustic soda), she adds.
If you have a sewing kit and an old towel, check out this template from the nonprofit Action Aid for more detailed instructions (with easy-to-follow pictures and a video) for making a reusable pad.
DIY menstrual pads: Use a menstrual cup
If you don’t want to go down the DIY route, the best alternative for single-use period products is a menstrual cup, says Dr. Corniero. “You can clean it easily and use it again and again.”
But she acknowledges that even if you’re a regular menstrual cup user, you might not have one with you at the moment.
A menstrual cup can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time. In comparison, pads and tampons must be changed several times a day.
What’s more, menstrual cups collect three times as much fluid as a tampon, meaning they’re less likely to leak than other period products.
DIY menstrual pads: DIY period products to avoid
Women and people who menstruate who don’t have period products sometimes use tissues or paper towels as DIY pads.
Even in an emergency situation, these replacements are a bad idea — and not just because they’re uncomfortable. Such methods might put you at a heightened risk of vaginal infections, such as bacterial vaginosis, and vulvar contact dermatitis (aka itching and rashes of the vulva).
Avoid DIY tampons too, says Dr. Corniero. Items that aren’t designed to be safely used in your vagina might increase the risk of infection.
If you are using regular disposable tampons, remember to change them frequently. “In times of crisis, I could imagine that you’d forget about it for days, which can be very dangerous,” says Dr. Corniero.
You should change your tampon every 4 to 8 hours. Going too long between changing one can increase the risk of vaginal infections. This includes a rare but life-threatening condition called toxic shock syndrome where bacteria gets into the body and releases harmful toxins.
DIY menstrual pads: How to manage period pain without medicine
Pads might not be the only thing on your mind when managing your period during turbulent times. What if you experience painful cramps?
During a crisis, accessing medicine — even simple painkillers — can be a challenge.
To handle cramps without medication, “apply heat to the affected area,” says Dr. Corniero. A hot water bottle or heat pad is ideal if you’re able to find one.
"Avoid tissues, paper towels and DIY tampons"
Self-massage for cramps
You could also lightly massage your lower abdomen using circular motions. Try the following steps:
- Lie on your back.
- Rub your hands together to warm them.
- Overlap your hands on the lower part of your belly.
- Use your palms to massage the entire stomach area in a clockwise direction.
- Continue the same movement on the left side of your stomach, in one-inch intervals, moving downward. Do the same on the right side of your belly.
- Use your fingers to press your navel firmly.
- Circulating outward from your navel, continue in a clockwise, circular motion.
If you have trigger points that need extra attention, go ahead and focus on them.
DIY menstrual pads: Keeping clean on your period
If you’re away from home without access to your usual toiletries, you might also worry about staying clean. How do you keep your genitals hygienic, especially when you’re on your period?
Dr. Corniero assures that all you need is clean water to clean your vulva (the outside of your genitals).
“Use only water for hygiene,” says Dr. Corniero. “It is not necessary to use special soaps.”
Your vagina (the inside part) is self-cleaning, so you don’t need to include it in your bathing routine.
DIY menstrual pads: Stress and period
Finally, it’s worth knowing that it is not uncommon for an acutely stressful situation like this to impact your period. So don’t be alarmed if you notice a change, such as longer or shorter cycles.
“It’s very normal to miss a period in times of stress,” says Dr. Corniero. “This is temporary most of the time, and normal bleeding should resume when you go back to a normal routine.”
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