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Get the Facts on Toxic Shock Syndrome

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Information about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) has waxed and waned throughout the years. Initial deaths from the condition resulted in a barrage of tests, warning labels, and recalls, but manufacturers have since distanced themselves from the issue, even removing the direction to avoid using tampons overnight from boxes. So what's the deal? Should we be worried or not?

While incidences of TSS have declined sharply since the 1980s, the fact that menarche is occurring earlier and earlier in young women has lead to an increase in cases since 2000. Companies like Tampax and Stayfree have also begun producing higher-absorbency tampons (the use of which is a major risk factor for the condition), causing consumers to be even more careful about what they put in their bodies.

Toxic shock syndrome occurs when an individual is exposed to the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes by way of the vagina, an open skin wound, or the throat. This means that anyone can suffer from TSS, including men, children, and post-menopausal women. However, most people are born with the necessary antibodies to fight off the bacteria when it attempts to infect.

Roughly half of all TSS cases occur as a result of menstruation. The protein-rich environment caused by the flow of menstrual blood, as well as the oxygen released into the vagina through a tampon, is optimal for the development of Staphylococcus aureus. Symptoms of TSS include the usual suspects: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and rash, which all occur rapidly in very severe forms. Treatment includes hospitalization and the aggressive use of antibiotics.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports the incidence of TSS to be 1-2 out of 100,000 women 15-44 years of age, and 5% of all cases are fatal. This means that the condition does present a significant risk to women who are not aware of the causes and symptoms.

The best way to avoid vaginally-contracted TSS is be to use an alternative feminine product, such as a pad or menstrual cup. For those using tampons, it’s important to choose the lowest possible absorbency level when determining the correct size for your flow, and you should also discontinue the use of tampons once your period is reduced to spotting.


Shaina Gaul is a feminist and freelance writer. View more of her writing at http://www.couchSpud.net.

Add a Comment3 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

You may be interested in this post at re:Cycling about new research on modifying tampons to reduce risk of TSS.

-Elizabeth Kissling

December 10, 2009 - 3:20pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Hi Elizabeth,
Thank you for sharing the link, and it would be very helpful to our readers if you could provide more information about what the new research results are indicating, who funds the research, and how the tampons are modified.

Alison Beaver
EmpowHER Moderator

December 10, 2009 - 3:38pm
(reply to Alison Beaver)

I agree! The research being done on tampons is closely related to other issues in society right now regarding chemicals, consumerism, and the relationship between capitalism and health. It really hits home when you think about it affecting you personally in terms of your sexual health.

December 17, 2009 - 1:07pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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