What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome and Should You Be Worried?

You’ve seen the warning about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) on a box of tampons and maybe heard about it during health class. Perhaps you read the blurb on the box but still didn’t think about toxic shock syndrome. After all, millions of women use tampons every day, but you rarely hear about TSS.

Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. Model Lauren Wasser lost her leg because of TSS and the resulting complications in 2012, and she had her second leg amputated in early 2018, as People magazine reported. Her story makes you pause a second to think about what tampons you’re using and your risk.

What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

TSS stems from a bacterial infection, usually from staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria, but it can also come from group A streptococcus. The bacteria produce toxins that spread throughout the body, causing fever, shock and organ damage, and it can lead to death.

Staph bacteria are found in many women’s bodies and are often harmless. If there’s an overgrowth of bacteria, however, it may release the toxins that cause TSS.

Tampons aren’t the only cause of TSS, but they are most commonly associated with it and make up about half the cases of TSS, according to the National Library of Medicine. Diaphragms, contraceptive sponges and cervical caps can also lead to TSS. Tampons are a more likely culprit for TSS because they can provide a breeding ground for bacterial growth, especially the more absorbent varieties.

What Are the Symptoms of TSS?

It’s hard to diagnose TSS because its symptoms are similar to other infections. Regardless, it’s important to see a doctor immediately if you have any signs of the infection and are using tampons.

Here are common symptoms:

  • Fever, sometimes with chills

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Confusion

  • Widespread rash

  • Headache

  • Low blood pressure

  • Muscle aches

  • Organ failure

Most often, antibiotics can effectively treat TSS.

How Common Is TSS?

It’s important to remember that the overall risk of getting TSS is low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there were just 323 cases reported in 2016.

In the late 1970s, there was a spike in cases of TSS, mostly attributed to more absorbent tampons. One brand of tampons, Rely, greatly increased the risk of TSS and has since been removed from the market.

Can You Lower Your Risk of TSS?

Yes. The two main ways to help prevent TSS are to change your tampon every few hours and avoid the super absorbent types. More absorbent tampons hold more moisture, which bacteria love, and are more likely to be left in longer.

Some argue that organic or all-cotton tampons are safer than conventional tampons, which are a blend of cotton and synthetic rayon. There isn’t enough research to determine whether one is less risky than the other, especially given how rarely TSS occurs.

In general, it’s important to understand what toxic shock syndrome is and ways to lower your risk. But the likelihood of contracting TSS is extremely low. For more information about toxic shock syndrome for yourself or your family, talk to a Lahey Health expert.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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