Not Trying to Shock You: The Lowdown on Toxic Shock Syndrome


Toxic shock syndrome gained attention as an illness and threat to women in the early 1980s (more than 800 women had contracted it) and prompted many studies on the relationship between minor cuts, tampons and the illness itself. Numerous studies on these relationships lead into recommendations that dramatically reduced the number of cases of women with toxic shock syndrome: the FDA required new labeling of tampons, the polyacrylate rayon that was in high-absorbency tampons is now no longer used, and tampon purchases now come with informational leaflets on toxic shock syndrome. Those warnings advise women to use a tampon with minimum absorbency, use a sanitary pad whenever possible, or even try a menstrual cup to minimize the risk.

>> Read more: Are Tampons Safe to Use?

While 50 percent of toxic shock syndrome cases are linked to tampon use, it can also develop from small cuts and respiratory infections after having the flu. The symptoms of toxic shock syndrome mimic those of the flu: severe myalgia, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, dizziness and headaches. This illness is caused by certain bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) that release poisons in the body, and those poisons cause a drop in blood pressure and organ failure. This bacteria is actually part of the normal human flora; it's on our skin and already in us, but most often does not cause infection. In the cases where it does lead to infection, the bacteria enters the body through an obvious skin wound, or multiples rapidly in the body because of prolonged intra-vaginal tampon use (usually of a large absorbency).


But cases of toxic shock syndrome from tampon use are few and far between anymore. Because women are minimizing the odds by staying informed, only one in 100,000 women will contract toxic shock syndrome from tampons each year, says this study from 2006. Toxic shock syndrome is potentially fatal, and is a medical emergency. Your doctor should be contacted immediately if you notice any of the toxic shock syndrome symptoms. But the best and most proactive move you can make is prevention. Use tampons of low absorbency and not for long stretches of time; use pads whenever possible; wash your hands before inserting a tampon; clean and bandage skin wounds.

The likelihood is low that a woman will ever develop toxic shock syndrome, but because the symptoms come on quickly, it is important to understand and recognize the illness. Talk with your daughter about tampon use, and then practice what you preach.