Toxic Shock Syndrome

Many women have heard of toxic shock syndrome or TSS. If you’re a regular user of tampons, then you’ve probably read the warnings that come ...

by Staff

Toxic Shock Syndrome

Many women have heard of toxic shock syndrome or TSS. If you’re a regular user of tampons, then you’ve probably read the warnings that come in every package about TSS. Unfortunately, other than informing you that the use of tampons is associated with the risk of developing TSS, those warnings don’t really tell you just what toxic shock syndrome is. So read on to learn the facts you need to know about this potentially lethal infection.

What is TSS?

Toxic shock syndrome is a kind of blood poisoning that results in a person becoming extremely ill in a very short amount of time. TSS is caused by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium. Although the bacteria are naturally found within the human body, under certain conditions, the bacteria can multiply leading to toxic shock syndrome.

TSS can occur as a result of using tampons or intravaginal contraceptive devices (i.e. the sponge) or as a result of an infection from surgery, an insect bite or burns. TSS can affect women and men, adults and children alike although it is thought that those under the age of 30 are more likely to suffer from TSS because their immune systems have yet to develop the appropriate antibodies.

Nowadays, occurrences of TSS are fairly rare. In 1996, the U.S. reported less than 100 cases of TSS. From these cases, less than half occurred as the result of tampon usage. This is a dramatic decrease from twenty years early, when 90% of all TSS cases were linked to tampons. In the United Kingdom, only about 40 cases of toxic shock syndrome are reported annually. Similar to the U.S., half of these cases are linked to women using tampons. Two to three people die every year in the U.K. as a result of toxic shock syndrome.

TSS and Tampons

When the United States first began paying attention to toxic shock syndrome in 1978, the vast majority of incidents were the result of women using tampons. Because of this, tampon manufacturers went about altering the makeup of their tampons. Since research has shown that using tampons with a higher absorbency can increase the risk of TSS, tampon manufacturers have also changed the absorbency levels in their tampons.

However, the connection between tampons and toxic shock syndrome has yet to be fully understood. It is assumed, though, that the Staphylococcus bacteria thrives and proliferates in warm, moist areas thereby making a high absorbency tampon the ideal breeding ground for the bacteria. The bacteria may enter your blood stream if the tampon causes a laceration in your vaginal lining. In the case of super absorbency tampons, the tampon may expand to such an extent that it sticks to the vaginal wall. Upon removal, the tampon pulls at your skin causing some of the lining to come off and the bacteria to get in.

Toxic Shock Symdrome Symptoms

Signs of TSS can appear suddenly, usually within 2 days of infection. In women, symptoms often show up around the time of menstruation. Common symptoms of toxic shock syndrome include:

  • High fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle aches
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Rash that resembles a sunburn
  • Confusion
  • Sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Blood shot eyes
  • Peeling of skin on palms of hands and soles of feet
  • Organ failure

If you experience the sudden onset of any of these symptoms, especially while you are menstruating and/or wearing a tampon, you should seek immediate medical attention. If you are wearing a tampon or a vaginal barrier contraceptive, remove it.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Toxic shock syndrome is usually diagno

sed through blood tests that evaluate how well your liver and kidneys are working. In some cases, your doctor may choose to do some additional blood tests in order to rule out the possibility of other illnesses. Once TSS has been confirmed, you will likely receive antibiotics to treat it. If the TSS has been caused by an infection of a sore or surgery, your doctor may drain the area.

It is important to seek help quickly if you suspect TSS. Left untreated, toxic shock syndrome can quickly get worse, leading to organ failure and possibly death.


To help avoid and lower your risk of TSS, don’t use tampons or alternate between tampons and pads during your period. If you are a sworn tampon user, then use the lowest absorbency tampon necessary for your period and change the tampon every 8 hours or less.

The Staphylococcus bacteria can live on your hands and is therefore consider to be contagious. Make sure you wash your hands properly, especially before and after inserting a tampon, to prevent the spread of the bacteria.


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