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.