When you hear “toxic shock syndrome” (TSS) you probably think “tampons,” but that’s not the only way you can get it. It’s a term we often hear but it’s important to know exactly what symptoms to look for. Toxic shock syndrome can cause serious health issues and it can be fatal. Model Lauren Wasser has been in the headlines for speaking out about TSS after losing a leg to it.
What is toxic shock syndrome?
The basic definition of toxic shock syndrome is that it is “a rare, life-threatening complication of certain types of bacterial infections.” Specifically, it is the result from toxins produced from from Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria but Mayo Clinic also state that it can be caused by group A streptococcus (strep) bacteria too.
Who can get it?
Anyone can get TSS. It isn’t just women who use tampons. Those only account for half of the cases. It can affect men, children, and women who are no longer menstruating.
What causes it?
According to the NHS, the bacteria associated with toxic shock syndrome can be found in healthy people. It can be found in the throat and nose and normally causes no serious health issues because most people have antibodies, which protect against toxins. Some people do not develop the specific toxin-fighting antibodies so the bacteria can enter the body through wounds, the throat or vagina, and release the toxins, which can do serious damage.
What are the risk factors?
You’ve had surgery or had a baby, you have a skin wound (including burns or recent chickenpox), you have a viral infection, you have a staphylococcal or streptococcal infection, you leave a tampon in for too long while on your period or you use female contraceptives such as diaphragms. If you’ve had TSS before, you can get it again.
Why do tampons cause toxic shock syndrome?
Unfortunately the link between tampons and TSS is unexplained. Web MD states that to get toxic shock syndrome, you need a place where bacteria can grow rapidly and get into the blood stream. The tampon, particularly polyester ones, are places where bacteria can grow. It’s hypothesized that the the bacteria gets into the blood from tiny tears caused by inserting a tampon or if you leave an absorbent tampon in too long, it will dry out the vagina. Causes of toxic shock syndrome have dropped since super absorbent tampons have been removed from sale.
What are the signs and symptoms?
- Low, rapidly-dropping blood pressure
- High fever (more than 38.9C/102F)
- Flu-like symptoms (cough, sore throat, aches)
- Dizziness, fainting or feeling light-headed
- Confusion, headaches
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Sunburn-like rash anywhere on the body
Toxic shock syndrome normally begins with a sudden high fever, then the other symptoms can rapidly develop. If you develop any of the symptoms it is recommended that you remove it and seek medical attention.
What are the complications?
- Organ failure
How is toxic shock syndrome treated?
If you have toxic shock syndrome, you need to go to the hospital. It is a medical emergency and you may be admitted to the intensive care unit. Treatment can take several days or weeks. According to the NHS, toxic shock syndrome is treated by a combination of antibiotics usually given intravenously through an IV drip and possibly immunoglobulin (donated human blood with a high level of antibodies). Additional medications may be given to control blood pressure and keep a patient hydrated. Dialysis will be needed if the kidneys stopped functioning.
If the toxins damaged the skin or body parts, those will be treated and cleaned. In extreme cases, parts of the body may need to be amputated.
How can I reduce my risk of getting it?
- Clean skin wounds and be alert for any signs of infection
- Use tampons with the lowest absorbency
- Store tampons away from heat and moisture, where bacteria cannot grow. i.e. The bedroom is better than the bathroom.
- Do not leave your tampon in for too long. Follow the instructions on the package.
- Alternate between tampons and pads.
- Switch to a pad if you have a light flow.
- Follow the instructions for female contraception on how long to leave them in.