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Cara Sprunk
March 15, 2018 12:15 pm

Most people who regularly wear tampons have heard of a mysterious illness called Toxic Shock Syndrome. But it’s not really something that often crosses our minds when we have our periods. Instead of thinking about Toxic Shock Syndrome symptoms, we focus on things like managing our cramps, where we can find chocolate, and when this is going to end.

While Toxic Shock Syndrome is rare, it’s still important for any person who uses tampons to be aware and understand Toxic Shock Syndrome symptoms so they can identify the illness and prevent it from getting serious. And yes, it gets serious.

In 2015, model Lauren Wasser made headlines when she shared that she had to have her right leg amputated due to complications from Toxic Shock Syndrome. And earlier this year, as she predicted, she had to have her left leg amputated, too. While that is obviously one of the most severe cases, it should scare anyone into paying attention.

What is Toxic Shock Syndrome? 

The definition of Toxic Shock Syndrome is, at its most simple, a bacterial infection. According to WebMD, TSS occurs when bacteria, most often from super-absorbent tampons that women wear for an extended period of time, gets trapped in the vagina. The bacteria that most often causes TSS are Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and C. sordellii.

The Toxic Shock Syndrome bacteria that tampons are associated with is Staphylococcal (or Staph), as this can affect any woman. Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome usually affects people with a pre-existing skin infection that is exacerbated by the bacteria.

Toxic Shock Syndrome Causes 

TSS is caused “by the release of poisonous substances from an overgrowth of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, which is found in many women’s bodies,” according to WebMD. However, while it is mostly associated with tampons, TSS has been linked to other foreign items found in women’s vaginas, such as cervical caps, menstrual sponges, and even diaphragms.

And while it’s mostly women who come to mind when you think of TSS, the illness can actually strike anyone exposed to staph bacteria; people who are recovering from things like surgery, burns, or open wounds are susceptible.

What causes Toxic Shock Syndrome is the body’s response to the poisons released by the bacteria. Fortunately, while how you get Toxic Shock Syndrome sounds common, only a few hundred cases are reported in the U.S. each year.

Common Toxic Shock Syndrome Symptoms

There are a wide range of symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the below are the most common. However, the signs of Toxic Shock Syndrome range greatly from person to person. The most common Toxic Shock Syndrome symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Rash (the Toxic Shock Syndrome rash most often resembles a sunburn on your palms and soles, according to the Mayo Clinic)
  • Skin peeling after the rash
  • Abnormally low blood pressure
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Mucus or discharge coming from the vagina, eyes, or throat
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Changes in your consciousness

How to Prevent TSS  

Fortunately, the largest cause of TSS has been eliminated. Tampon manufacturers no longer use the materials most associated with the syndrome. But that doesn’t mean you are completely safe. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is imperative to read the labels on tampon boxes and use the lowest absorbency you can. Additionally, to prevent Toxic Shock Syndrome you should change your tampon every four to eight hours, and alternate pads and tampons when possible.

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What to Do if You Think You Have TSS

If you are presenting the above symptoms, it is very important to quickly seek treatment for Toxic Shock Syndrome. Time is of the essence, so if you cannot see your doctor quickly, you should visit an emergency room. Most doctors, while very familiar with TSS in theory, have never seen a case of it, so it is great if you can come prepared with information about why you think your symptoms might be caused by TSS.

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