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Toxic Shock Syndrome, Causes, and Prevention

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but life-threatening complication caused by certain bacterial infections.

It’s usually seen in young women who use super-absorbent tampons, but men and children can also experience it. Toxic shock syndrome symptoms result from toxins produced by bacteria — either Staphylococcus (more common) or group-A Streptococcus. 

What is toxic shock syndrome? 

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare but life-threatening medical condition that occurs when certain bacteria enter the bloodstream and release toxins. TSS symptoms occur primarily due to the use of super-absorbent tampons.

After certain kinds of tampons were taken off the market by the manufacturers, toxic shock syndrome symptoms have declined in menstruating women. 

TSS can affect anyone, including children, men, and postmenopausal women. Risk factors for developing toxic shock symptoms include surgery, skin wounds, and using tampons.

TSS can get worse very quickly and can be fatal without prompt treatment. Most people with symptoms and signs of toxic shock syndrome recover fully if they receive treatment quickly. 

A young woman suffering from toxiс shock syndrome

Main toxic shock syndrome symptoms 

In most cases, toxic shock syndrome symptoms start suddenly and get worse quickly if not treated promptly. TSS symptoms can vary from person to person.

Common symptoms and signs of TSS are:

  • a high fever of 102.2 degrees F (39 C) or above that develops suddenly
  • hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • diarrhea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • a rash that resembles sunburn, especially on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands
  • muscle pain
  • seizures
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • flu-like symptoms including chills, cough, and a sore throat
  • red eyes, throat, and mouth/tongue
  • fainting or dizziness
  • feeling severely ill

When to visit your doctor

Toxic shock syndrome is a medical emergency. Though many of these signs and symptoms could be due to another illness (such as the flu), it’s critical to contact your doctor if you suffer from any toxic shock syndrome symptoms. Although toxic shock syndrome is rare, it is too dangerous to ignore. 

It is especially important to visit your doctor if you develop these symptoms after a skin injury or surgery, or after using tampons. 

A tampon

How long does it take to get toxic shock syndrome from a tampon?

Toxic shock syndrome has been linked to leaving a tampon in for too long, encouraging overgrowth of Staphylococcus bacteria. According to the instructions on a tampon box, you should change your tampon every four to eight hours. Leaving a tampon in for more than 8 hours can create a breeding ground for various types of bacteria. It also increases your risk of getting infections such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and possibly toxic shock syndrome. Make sure to maintain good hygiene during your period and change your tampons or pads regularly. 

TSS risk factors and complications

The following factors may increase the risk of developing toxic shock syndrome:

  • Using tampons, especially super-absorbent ones, or leaving them in for a long time
  • Using female barrier contraceptives such as caps, diaphragms, or sponges (types of non-hormonal birth control)
  • Having a break in the skin such as a burn, cut, insect bite, surgical wound, or boil
  • childbirth
  • Plugging your nose with absorbent materials after a nosebleed
  • Having a Streptococcal or Staphylococcal infection such as impetigo, cellulitis, or a throat infection
  • Having a viral infection including chickenpox or flu

Complications of toxic shock syndrome

TSS is a life-threatening illness. In some cases, it can affect the major organs in your body. If the condition isn’t treated, it can result in complications including:

  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Heart failure
  • Shock or decreased flow of blood through the body
  • Death 

How to prevent toxic shock syndrome 

Take the following steps to prevent the occurrence of toxic shock syndrome:

  • Change your pads and tampons regularly (every four to eight hours).
  • Always use tampons that have the lowest absorbency you need for your flow.
  • Consider using other options like reusable menstrual cups (make sure to wash your hands before changing them).
  • Alternate between using tampons and panty liners or pads during your period.
  • Adjust the size of tampons or use pads when your menstrual flow decreases.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after you insert a tampon.
  • Don’t insert more than one tampon at a time.
  • When you use a tampon overnight, make sure to insert a fresh one before you go to sleep and remove it as soon as you wake up in the morning.
  • Make sure to remove the tampon when your period ends.
  • Treat burns and wounds promptly and get advice from a doctor if you develop signs and symptoms of infection including redness, increasing pain and swelling, or signs of TSS.
  • Keep surgical incisions and cuts clean and change dressings often.

TSS is a rare but life-threatening complication that occurs as a result of certain bacterial infections.

TSS symptoms usually occur in young women who use super-absorbent tampons, but men and children can also experience them. Common signs of TSS are high fever, rash, and feeling severely ill.

Some things that increase your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome include using tampons or female barrier contraceptives and suffering from a Streptococcal or Staphylococcal infection.

You can prevent TSS by changing your tampon regularly (at least every four to eight hours), using tampons that have the lowest absorbency necessary, and washing your hands before and after inserting a tampon.

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