Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS): Definition, Signs, Treatments, And Prevention

In 2012, fashion modal Lauren Wasser was in the hospital being pumped full of fluids that were trying to flush out her body of the life-threatening toxins that had invaded her body. Unfortunately, due to the aggressive nature of the toxins, she had to have her right leg amputated below her knee.

Now, five years later, Wasser has come forward telling The Washington Post about how she will soon have to have her left leg amputated as well because the ‘superbug’ that has invaded her body has still not been completely eliminated. The reason for Wasser’s horrifying experience was found to be due to using a superabsorbent tampon during her periods which resulted in the overgrowth of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). This overgrowth of the Staph bacteria then led to Toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare, widely unknown, and life-threatening illness.

Toxic Shock Syndrome Risk Increases With Tampon Use

Surveys have found that over 70% of American women use tampons throughout their periods, most of whom aren’t even aware that they are putting themselves at risk of contracting TSS. Of course, just using tampons isn’t going to cause TSS, but if you leave the superabsorbent tampons inside for an extended period (overnight or more than 4-5 hours), you could be at higher risk of TSS.

One of the critical points about TSS is that it can progress very quickly and should be dealt with immediately with the highest priority. Read more about this rare but deadly illness, and if you recently experienced some of the symptoms mentioned (especially if you have just had your period or use tampons), take immediate action by going to the emergency room or calling 9-1-1. According to research into this illness, it’s found that 100,000 people are infected with TSS every year, so it’s always best to stay informed.

What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

TSS or Toxic shock syndrome is a potentially fatal illness that is caused when some naturally present bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes and Staphylococcus aureus) in the vagina overgrow to produce toxins. The bacteria are not the actual cause of TSS. Instead, it’s the toxins that are created by these bacteria that result in TSS when they are introduced to the bloodstream.

Hand With Toxic Shock Syndrome

Like in the case of Lauren Wasser, most people get TSS as a result of the overgrowth of bacteria in their blood-soaked tampons during periods. But scientific research is lacking on TSS with one-third of women with TSS not having the overgrown bacteria present. There are even cases where women after childbirth or surgery have shown symptoms of TSS. Some men have also reported having signs of TSS, who were later found to have the Staphylococcal skin infections.

From what we know, there is an increase in the risk of TSS when using tampons when the tampons are left in the vagina for too long, causing an increase in the growth of toxin-producing bacteria. The second way tampons increase the risk of TSS is when tampons are used on low-flow occasions which causes the tampon to cause tiny abrasions/scratches on the vaginal walls when being removed.

According to Dr. Sherry Ross, the author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health, “TSS is difficult to treat because the organism responsible for the body’s catastrophic destruction is called MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  This is a ‘superbug’ that is resistant to the antibiotics typically used to treat this type of staph infection.” What this means is that that it’s challenging for doctors to treat TSS and in some cases, extreme measures like amputation are required to prevent further spreading of the illness.

MRSA Under Microscope

What Are The Signs And Symptoms?

Lauren Wasser is trying to help increase the awareness of TSS and what to look out for if someone has contracted this dangerous illness. Some of the signs and symptoms of TSS include:

  • Having a sunburn-like skin rash
  • Experiencing vomiting
  • Having headaches
  • Being confusion
  • Having reddened eyes
  • Getting a sore throat
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Experiencing joint pains
  • Experiencing muscular aches
  • Increased light sensitivity
  • Feeling feverish
  • Diarrhea
  • Peeling skin patches on hands and feet
  • Collapsing or losing consciousness
  • Experiencing kidney failure

How To Treat Toxic Shock Syndrome?

If you experience any of the signs and symptoms of TSS mentioned above, stop using tampons immediately and contact emergency services at once. You can call 9-1-1 or visit the emergency room quickly if you can.

The doctors will do multiple tests to confirm if it’s TSS or something else with the standard treatment option being hospitalized with antibiotics to kill the overgrown bacteria and infection. You will also be given fluids intravenously to prevent dehydration and improve blood pressure. Medical complications will also have to be treated, including kidney failure, or gangrene (like in the case of Lauren Wasser).

How To Reduce Your Risk Of Catching Toxic Shock Syndrome?

While the chance of you catching TSS is slim, there are still over 100,000 cases reported every year. And while the chance is small, you don’t want to be one of the few people who have to deal with TSS invading your body and altering your life.

Applicator Tampons May Scratch Vaginal Walls

So, here are a few ways you can reduce the risk of getting TSS:

  • Try not to use superabsorbent tampons.
  • Prefer using sanitary napkins (pads) instead of tampons for overnight use.
  • Only unseal the tampon before using it to prevent germs interacting with the tampon.
  • Don’t use tampons if you are not expecting your period.
  • Properly cleanse your hands before and after you insert or remove the tampon.
  • Avoid causing abrasions on the vaginal walls by gently inserting and removing the tampons.
  • Use lubricating jelly if using tampons on low-flow days to avoid scratching the vaginal walls.
  • Limit the amount of time you handle your tampon to reduce the risk of germ infections.
  • Avoid using applicator tampons as the applicator can cause abrasions on the vaginal walls.
  • Make sure to replace tampons frequently (every four hours at least).
  • Make sure that you maintain personal hygiene during your periods.
  • Avoid using tampons (instead use panty liners or pads) on low-flow days.

Summary Of Toxic Shock Syndrome:

TSS (Toxic shock syndrome) is a potentially deadly illness that can be caused because of an overgrowth of vaginal bacteria that produce toxins that invade the body through the blood. There are many signs of TSS, and the best way to reduce your risk of TSS is by maintaining good personal hygiene and replacing your tampons frequently. Since tampons increase the risk factor for this illness, you can also consider using sanitary napkins instead to reduce the risk of TSS further.

Reduce Risk Of TSS By Using Pads Instead Of Tampons

Remember that if you are on your periods or just had your periods, and are suffering from the mentioned signs and symptoms of TSS, call 9-1-1 for medical help and explain your symptoms so that the responders are better able to help you. You can also call your doctor to ask for immediate advice or call the emergency department of a hospital nearby for the same.

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