What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome? Everything You Need to Know

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) isn’t particularly common, so many people may write it off as something that won’t actually happen to them. However, it is a life-threatening condition that should be taken very seriously. Tampons are most widely associated with TSS — but they aren’t the only way you can be affected.

Here’s everything you need to know about TSS, including what it is, how you can get it, and preventative measures you can take.

Doctor and patient

Doctor and patient | monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

What is it?

Live Science describes TSS as “a rare but life-threatening condition that’s caused by toxins produced by certain types of bacteria.” The main type of bacteria that can produce these toxins is S. aureus.

This bacteria lives on skin and mucous membranes, and while it doesn’t cause symptoms, it can “grow rapidly and produce toxins” under certain conditions.

Why tampons put you at risk

Here’s where tampons come into play. The more absorbent a tampon is, the more you’re at risk of TSS. The highly absorbent variety provide just the right conditions for the bacteria to grow and produce toxins. Leaving a tampon in for too long puts you at an even greater risk. Maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Michael Cackovic explained, “[It’s] almost like a petri dish.”

TSS started popping up more frequently in the 1970s and 1980s, as “super-absorbent tampons” became popular. According to Cackovic, those tampons “gave the perfect environment for the bacteria to propagate and give off its [toxin].” Many of the super-absorbent tampons associated have since been taken off the market.

How often it occurs

As previously mentioned, TSS is rare. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. According to Cackovic, TSS affects 1 in 100,000 menstruating women.

Cleveland Clinic has found that women who use tampons between ages 15 and 25 are at a higher risk. Older women are more likely to have antibodies that will fight off S. aureus, which could be why they are affected by TSS at a lower rate.

Feminine products

Feminine products | Matka Wariatka/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Tampons aren’t the only cause

It’s a common misconception that tampons are the only source for TSS. What’s more, women aren’t the only people at risk. Only approximately one half of TSS cases occur in women as the result of tampons. Men, children, and postmenopausal women have been affected by the condition, as well.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Other risk factors for TSS include skin infections, surgical wounds, burns, childbirth, and the use of packings to stop nosebleeds.”

What are its symptoms?

TSS can result in kidney failure, liver failure, and death. Therefore, it’s extremely important to look out for the flu-like symptoms of TSS. According to the NIH, sudden high fever and chills, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness could all be signs that you’ve been affected by the condition. You may even notice a widespread rash on your skin that resembles sunburn.

How to prevent TSS

Preventative measures can be taken against TSS for women using tampons. According to Live Science, you should only wear each tampon for 4 to 8 hours at a time. Many women may opt to wear a tampon at night, but it’s best to use a pad instead.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends “switching from tampons to pads every other day or during times of heaviest menstrual flow.” When you do use tampons, always go for the lowest-absorbency option possible.

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