Should You Worry About Toxic Shock Syndrome?

July 15, 2015

Tampon use has been associated with toxic shock syndrome. TSS is a rare but serious disease that may cause death. Read and save the enclosed information. Use for eight hours maximum.

Does that warning seem familiar? It’s a boilerplate message that appears on all boxes of tampons sold in the United States. Even so, most tampon-using women will attest that – from time to time – their tampons remain in place for longer than 8 hours, most typically overnight (weekend sleep-ins) or during the lighter phases of a period, when it’s easy to forget you need a change during the day.

Even so, as model Lauren Wasser can attest, failure to heed that warning can result in serious consequences, including the development of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).

Image courtesy of torbakhopper at Flickr

Image courtesy of torbakhopper at Flickr

Staphylococcus aureus + Tampons = A Dangerous Combination

Toxic Shock Syndrome is not solely caused by extended tampon use. It is actually an infection caused by a excessive build-up of bacteria called staphylococcus aureus, found on and in about 20 percent of the population. When this bacteria builds to high levels – which can happen when a tampon host accumulates the bacteria via the vagina – the bacteria + the host create a very dangerous toxin. The result is TSS, and a patient can become very sick, very quickly, if the infection is not caught in time.

While it is important to be aware of TSS, and its link to tampon use, incidences of TSS are very rare (only 59 American cases were reported to the CDC in 2014), and only about half of the reported staphylococcus-related TSS cases are caused by tampons. So, when you consider that millions of women use tampons every month, you can see how rare tampon-related TSS really is. TSS can also occur as the result of burns, skin infections, serious nose bleeds that are packed with tampon-like gauze to staunch the flow of blood, after a surgical procedure or post-childbirth.

So what’s the connection between tampons and TSS? Well, it’s an interesting one. Prior to the 1980s, tampon-related TSS was extremely rare. Tampons used to be 100% cotton, completely devoid of synthetic materials. However, during the early 80s, tampon manufacturers began adding synthetic materials to create a more absorbent product. Says a study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, the gel beads and synthetic products used in many modern tampon products act, “like agar in a petri dish, providing a viscous medium on which the [staphylococcus aureus] bacteria…grow.”

While it may seem like being tested for staphylococcus aureus would be the most likely solution – it won’t work. Women’s vaginal flora and fauna are in constant change – according to their hormone cycle, among other things – thus a negative or positive test now might yield completely different results in a week, two months or two years from now.

Thus, if you use tampons, your best bet is to:

  • Use 100% cotton tampons
  • Always use any tampon product at the lowest possible absorbency level you need
  • Change tampons every four hours
  • Use pads at night when you are less likely to wake up and change a tampon

Or, you can also consider changing to a product like the Diva Cup, Moon Cup or another menstrual cup-like device. These can take a while to get used to but work much differently than a tampon and – so far – there have been no incidences of TSS in association with any form of menstrual cup. Plus, they’re better for the environment and your wallet! Consider that you only need to purchase a menstrual cup every three years or so.

Symptoms of TSS include a fever of 102 degrees F or higher, muscle aches, rash, fatigue, dizziness, mental fogginess, nausea and/or vomiting and low blood pressure. Prolonged TSS will eventually cause the shutting down of your internal organs, which leads to other serious side effects and even death.

If you are on your period, using a tampon and experience any of the above symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately to rule out the possibility of TSS. Contact Women’s Health Associates to learn more about his rare – but very serious – condition.