Women who use tampons may notice the insert about toxic shock syndrome. In the early 1980s toxic shock syndrome was all over the news media. Nearly 30 years later, we rarely hear about it. What is toxic shock syndrome and why do we need to be warned about it?
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a very rare but potentially fatal illness caused by a complication of bacterial infection; primarily the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. It occurs mostly in menstruating women who are using high absorbency tampons.
Although the exact connection is not crystal clear, many researchers suspect certain types of high-absorbency tampons provide a moist, warm home where bacteria can thrive. While TSS was originally linked to tampons, now it is also connected with contraceptive sponges and diaphragms.
Toxic shock syndrome hits hard. Shock, organ failure, and death have all been associated with TSS. Three percent of women who get TSS die from it. Toxic shock syndrome from staphylococcus starts suddenly, usually during or just after a period. Common symptoms include a high fever (sometimes accompanied by chills), vomiting, diarrhea, and a drop in blood pressure. Also muscle aches, headaches, sore throat, blood-shot eyes, confusion, a widespread rash that looks like sunburn, and skin peeling. Get immediate medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms, particularly during menstruation and tampon use.
For many who started menstruating in the early 1980s, the term toxic shock syndrome is nothing new. There was a tidal wave of media attention when an epidemic broke out. It was linked to the prolonged use of highly absorbent tampons. According to the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, 942 women were diagnosed with tampon-related TSS from 1980 to 1981. Forty of them died. At that time, several companies sold super-absorbent synthetic tampons. These tampons didn’t create TSS, but provided a breeding ground for the toxins to grow.
As an outcome, the FDA implemented regulations listing tampons as medical devices. It forced manufacturers to standardize tampon absorbencies and include package inserts warning tampon users of TSS risk. Since then the number of cases of tampon-induced toxic shock syndrome has dropped significantly, but it’s still wise to exercise caution when using tampons.
Avoid using highly absorbent tampons. Alternate between using tampons and sanitary napkins during your period. Never leave a tampon in overnight. Change tampons frequently, at least every four to six hours. It’s also recommended to keep tampons away from heat and moisture where bacteria can grow.
Stacy Lloyd is a writer and video producer in Phoenix, Arizona. A former television news journalist, she covered stories around the world. Currently, she produces corporate and non-profit videos and broadcast programming.