For an infection that is incredibly rare, toxic shock syndrome (TSS) seems to get a lot of attention in the press. But these stories — most often of a young woman falling gravely ill from a tampon — seem to perpetuate an idea that tampons themselves are dangerous. But TSS, which the Mayo Clinic defines as a “rare, life-threatening complication of certain types of bacterial infections,” isn’t inextricably linked to feminine hygiene products.
“Toxic shock syndrome is not a tampon syndrome,” Lisa Masterson, an ob-gyn and author of Health in Heels with Dr. Lisa, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It is a syndrome where bacteria get into the body and release toxins, which can happen from a multitude of [things].” Masterson says that while tampons are the most common way the bacterial infection occurs, TSS can also be contracted from the use of diaphragms and sponges, or after surgery and childbirth.
The most common symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic, are “a sudden high fever, low blood pressure, vomiting or diarrhea, a rash resembling a sunburn, muscle aches, seizures, and headaches.” Masterson says that these are the result of the toxins spreading and causing sepsis or shock. “It can affect the whole body, all the organs; it can cause the kidney to shut down where you need dialysis,” she says. “It can cause the liver to have failure, and it can actually lead to death.”
Although statements like these — and stories in the media — can be frightening, this condition isn’t something you need to worry about on a daily basis. “TSS is very rare; that’s the good news,” says Masterson. “It affects about one in 100,000 people.”
Finally, while Masterson says some tampon makers suggest that certain types are more likely to cause TSS, that’s not the case.
“One of the common misconceptions about TSS is that it can be prevented by using organic cotton tampons,” says Masterson. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. If you use cotton or synthetic tampons, you have an equal chance. It’s all about how long you leave the tampon in and the size. If you think you have TSS, the first thing you should do is call your doctor, because if you can get on antibiotics right away, you can keep this whole thing from happening.”
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