Toxic Shock Syndrome 101: How it's linked to tampons, and everything else you need to know

Get clued up and keep yourself safe

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The phrase 'Toxic Shock Syndrome' will occasionally pop up in the news, often in relation to the sad death of a young woman. Most people don't know much about it other than the fact that it's commonly linked to the use of tampons, with victims usually leaving one in for way too long, creating fatal health problems. 

It's fairly terrifying to think that something as casual as popping in a tampon could lead to a deadly outcome, but what actually IS toxic shock syndrome, and should you really be worried about it? How at risk are you, and should it make you think twice about opting for tampons?

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Here's everything you need to know about TSS, the symptoms and all the important stuff to keep yourself safe.

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What is Toxic Shock Syndrome, or TSS?

Toxic shock syndrome itself is a very rare but ultimately life-threatening bacterial infection. If you want to get all scientific about it, it's caused by the Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Bet you're glad we told you that.

These very complex-sounding bacteria will normally live harmlessly on the skin, nose or mouth without causing any problems, but occasionally they can invade the body's bloodstream and release poisonous toxins, which is when things get dangerous.

Toxins they create can then go on to damage tissue within your skin and organs, and can even disturb the functions of your vital organs to cause severe circulatory and organ failure. Yep, it's scary.

What actually causes it?

Doctors still don't really understand why, but around 50% of TSS cases occur in women who are on their period and using a tampon - particularly tampons that are labelled as 'super absorbent', for some reason.

It's not all down to tampons though, FYI.

The syndrome can also manifest itself as a result of an infected wound or insect bite, or even skin damage from a burn or scald, which can allow bacteria to enter the body and release the dangerous toxins.

Can boys not get it, then?

Of course they can. Because it's linked to cuts, bites, burns and scalds which anyone can get, TSS doesn't discriminate. 

However, it has also been linked to menstrual sponges, diaphragms and cervical caps (as well as tampons), so it's unsurprising that TSS is most common in women under 30. Up to 30% of cases are in women under the age of 19.

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What kinda symptoms should I watch out for?

The first symptom that usually appears in relation to toxic shock syndrome is a sudden high fever, before others rapidly follow within the next few hours. These might include nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain, flu-like feelings, fainting and dizziness. 

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The NHS also advises you to watch out for a a sunburn-like skin rash, with the whites of the eyes, lips and tongue turning redder than usual. One or two weeks after the rash appears, the skin may then start shedding in large sheets, particularly from your palms or soles of your feet.

If you notice the symptoms...

Remove your tampon, seek medical attention and let the doctor know that you're concerned about TSS. If left too long without treatment, sufferers experience low blood pressure, a state of shock, confusion, kidney failure and even comas. 

And of course, we know that TSS can sometimes be fatal. It's so important to know the signs. Even if you really do just have an illness like flu, which has similar symptoms, it's better to be on the safe side and get yourself checked out.

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So do I need to stop using tampons?

Basically, no. You just need to be smart when you are using them.

If you're worrying, you can reduce the risk of menstrual TSS significantly by slightly cutting down on the number of tampons you're using while on your period. Swap one of them each day for a sanitary pad instead.

It's also important that you're using the minimum absorbency tampon for your needs - don't over compensate by opting for a super-maxi-mega size just to make sure. 

Of course, not using tampons altogether will essentially get rid of the risk altogether, but for a lot of women that's just not a practical option. Be sensible, REMEMBER WHEN YOU'VE GOT ONE IN. Change it every 4-6 hours, don't leave it for more than 8.

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What else can I do to minimise the risk?

A lot of the suggestions for minimising the potential of TSS are just basic hygiene ideas that we all practice anyway. Wash your hands before and after fiddling with tampons, and make sure you're changing them every 4 to 8 hours. Never leave one in for any longer.

It might sound silly, but always make sure you've removed your used tampon before popping in a new one, and double-triple-quadruple check that you've removed the last one at the end of your period.

You should also never use tampons before you've started your period, or to absorb other vaginal discharge. That's not what they're for. They're for menstrual flow (aka period blood) only.

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Can you recover from it?

If TSS is diagnosed and treated early with antibiotics and fluids, there is a good chance of recovery and improvement is usually shown within 48 hours. The quicker you receive treatment, the better. 

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