Toxic Shock Syndrome: Tampons and More

PD Character Studies SS32014Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) usually strikes women. While it can be extremely serious, it is also quite rare. Often associated with tampon use, TSS is caused by a toxin released by specific bacteria. Although TSS can affect anyone, most cases occur in teenage girls and menstruating women. Some cases have been related to exposure to an infection contracted during surgery or after suffering a burn or open wound. Although most people have naturally occurring antibodies that protect them from this toxin, some do not, and it is in these people that infection can lead to TSS.

The Tampon-TSS Connection

In the late 1970s, tampons—especially the super-absorbent type—were linked to an increased susceptibility to TSS, especially in women under age 25. Although the exact relationship between tampon use and TSS is still not known, it is believed that tampons may cause very small cuts, lacerations, or ulcerations in the vaginal wall, which make it easier for bacteria to enter into the bloodstream.

Symptoms Occur Suddenly

The symptoms of TSS, which almost always come on very suddenly and occur in women, usually strike during or following a menstrual period. These symptoms include:
  • High fever (102°F [39°C] or higher)
  • Rash resembling a sunburn that eventually peels skin on the palms and soles
  • Lightheadedness or fainting caused by a drop in blood pressure
  • Sleepiness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscular aches and pains
  • Confusion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea and/or vomiting
  • Blood-shot eyes
  • Agitation
  • Vaginal discharge (may be watery or bloody)
  • Swelling in the face and eyelids
  • Extreme fatigue and/or weakness
While relatively rare, TSS can lead to serious complications, especially if left untreated. TSS can lead to shock, kidney and/or liver failure, paralysis, and miscarriage. In a very small number of cases, death can result from hypotensive shock. The body's reaction to the toxins can be overwhelming—blood pools near the digestive tract, causing the heart and lungs to be deprived of blood and to stop working.

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