The mention of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is usually met with panic. Stories about women who have suffered serious complications, or even death, due to TSS lead worries about tampons and proper hygiene during menstruation. However, while the threat may seem overwhelming, it actually is very small.
"TSS is a rare but serious bacterial illness. In the U.S., TSS is estimated to affect 3-6 people per 100,000 per year," said Erin Clark, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist with University of Utah Health. "The National Organization for Rare Disorders estimates that TSS related to tampon use occurs in about 1 in 100,000 menstruating women."
TSS is not a condition that only affects menstruating women using tampons - or women alone. Anyone can contract the syndrome if they come in contact with certain types of bacteria that produce harmful toxins that cause the body to go into shock. The most common causes are Staphlococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. "People can be exposed to these bacteria through open wounds, surgery, tampon use, childbirth, and various types of infections," said Clark. "Tampon use is to blame in only a fraction of cases."
While TSS is serious, it does not always end in horrible complications or death. In the majority of cases patients recover with proper and timely medical intervention. "TSS is treated with a combination of intravenous fluids, medications to increase blood pressure, and antibiotics. Because people with TSS are very sick, these treatments are usually given in an intensive care unit," said Clark. "If infected tissue (like an infected surgical wound) is present, then sometimes surgery to remove the infected tissue is also necessary for people to recover."
There are ways to reduce your risk of contracting TSS linked to tampon use. Follow the instructions on the package when it comes to length of usage - usually between four and eight hours. Don't use higher absorbency tampons if you don't need them. Also, know what your tampons are made of as certain materials, like rayon, can increase the risk. "Manufacturers have reduced the absorbency of tampons and have changed the materials in order to decrease the risk," said Clark. "By changing the type of tampons on the market, and through public education, the incidence of TSS in menstruating women declined dramatically."
You can still wear tampons and protect yourself from TSS at the same time. However, if you experience a sudden high fever, chills, vomiting or diarrhea, rash, headaches or seizures, you should seek professional medical help as those are all symptoms of TSS.