Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare, life-threatening complication of bacterial infection according to the Mayo Clinic. The Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center (PSLMC) in Denver says that TSS refers to a combination of symptoms resulting from toxins produced by an infection with either staphylococcus aureus or group A streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.
There are two types of TSS: menstrual (associated with menstruation and tampon use) and non-menstrual.
Regarding the menstrual type, the Mayo Clinic says researchers don't know exactly how tampons may cause TSS. Some believe when super-absorbent tampons are left in place for a long time, they become a breeding ground for bacteria.
Others suggest the tampon’s super-absorbent fibers can scratch the vaginal surface, making it possible for bacteria or their toxins to enter the bloodstream.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says the non-menstrual type can occur with skin infections, burns and after surgery. It can affect children, postmenopausal women and men.
McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois adds that non-menstrual TSS risk is increased for women who use vaginal barrier contraceptive methods like the sponge or diaphragm.
Signs and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome develop suddenly. These include a high fever, low blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, sore throat, headache, redness of eyes, mouth and throat, confusion, seizures, agitation, sleepiness, joint or muscle pain, vaginal discharge (may be watery or bloody), and swelling in the face and eyelids.
NIH says there can be a widespread, sunburn-like rash with skin peeling one or two weeks after the rash, particularly on the hands and feet.
PSLMC says the initial symptoms may improve, but the disease can progress and cause multiple organ failure. Symptoms of severe TSS include kidney failure, seriously low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, seizures, gangrene, pancreatitis, low platelet count, heart problems, fluid retention and liver failure.
NIH warns that toxic shock syndrome is a medical emergency and may be deadly in up to 50 percent of cases.