Two weeks ago I bolted upright in bed. Had I taken my tampon out?! I leaped from under the covers and into the bathroom, terrified of wasting a single second. I was 99% sure it had indeed been removed, but the phantom specter of toxic shock syndrome (TSS)—the rare disease every teen magazine warned me I would get if I left a tampon in for too long—turned that 1% of uncertainty into an endless loop of worst-case scenarios.
Nearly two decades after I first heard about it, the fear of TSS is still, literally, keeping me up at night.
In the 1990s and early aughts, it felt like every teen magazine you picked up had a terrifying story about TSS that made tampons feel like ticking time bombs. There were dozens of Jamie-not-her-real-names who left a tampon in for too long and were left with horrifying health consequences: trips to the hospital, amputations, brushes with death. It's left just about every menstruating millennial woman I know with tampon anxiety, living in fear of leaving it in too long.
“I felt followed around by this fear of TSS,” says Casey Lewis, the writer behind teen-magazine archive account @ThankYouAtoosa. “It must have shaped all of our personal period trauma, and it was solely because of teen magazines. It's not like gynos were threatening you or telling you about it. It's not like teachers were warning you. It's certainly not like a classmate had this."
As an adult you almost never hear about TSS. Probably because it’s classified as a rare disease. It occurs in only a handful of women—one in 100,000, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders—per year. To put that in perspective, in 2005, when TSS stories were common, chlamydia was around 500 times more common in women than TSS. And yet for years I was much more convinced that something terrible would happen to me if I forgot to take out a tampon rather than if I forgot to use a condom.
“Of all the things that we could have read about as teenage girls that were risks like cancer, diabetes, or so many other things, those things were covered far less than TSS. It’s just wild.”
To be clear, TSS is serious. It can be fatal and is most common in menstruating women (though men can get the bacterial infection too), and you should definitely always follow tampon protocol if you’re going to use one. But it's interesting that so much space on the pages of the magazines of our youth was devoted to tales of a relatively rare condition.
Where was the constant drumbeat of catastrophic stories about STDs causing infertility? Cervical cancer? Endometriosis? “I never remember endometriosis being mentioned in a teen magazine. If you had a lot of period pain, I never remember reading that it could be anything other than just PMS—you just had to deal with it,” Lewis says. “Of all the things that we could have read about as teenage girls that were risks like cancer, diabetes, or so many other things, those things were covered far less than TSS. It's just wild.”
So why was such a disproportionate amount of our adolescent fears (and adult anxieties) spent on an infection that was pretty unlikely to impact our lives? "I think, honestly, girls and their period, it's just a thing," says Susan Schultz, the former editor in chief of CosmoGirl from 2003 to 2008. "I mean, you get your period every month. As a health issue I think maybe it seems everybody is susceptible [to TSS], right? Everybody could be the next victim type of thing." Maybe endometriosis and cancer felt too abstract to stick in our teenage minds. TSS felt as real as the tampon stashed in your locker. "Pretty much any menstruating young woman would have a fear of TSS just by virtue of the fact that, yes, you could get it," says Schultz.
Or the answer might simply be that TSS stories made for compelling content—it was clickbait for the print age.
“They were trying to get you to pick up a magazine on the newsstand with your mom, or whatever,” says Lewis. Selling magazines is, you know, pretty important when you work in media, but “TSS was something that felt sensational—which is really icky when you think about it,” she says.
Lewis shared a spread in a 2005 issue of Seventeen emblazoned with “Tampon Safety Alert!” in neon yellow text that could strike fear into my 28-year-old heart, not to mention me at 13. "I mean: Toxic! Shock! Syndrome! None of them is a good word on its own, so put together, it's triple whammy," says Schultz. "Whoever coined that was brilliant in really conveying this is something you want to avoid at all costs." (The Seventeen article does mention that cases of TSS are extremely rare, but it amounts to a footnote.)
“I think the reason this fear was so strong was that we read about it so often. It was the frequency of it,” says Lewis. Imagine all the girls who opted only for light tampons, eschewing regular and super-absorbencies in fear. Imagine the leaks. The white-hot humiliation of standing up after fourth period English to hear snickers from the stupid boys behind you. Imagine the emotional scarring. The therapy bills! The horror! Like the shiny dream of Brad and Jen's perfectly bronzed romance, TSS is a ghost we just can't seem to shake.
The Instagram account Lewis runs is hilarious precisely because the content is so wildly outdated. Women's media (including Glamour's own archival TSS headlines) has mercifully evolved in the past two decades—as it should have. We no longer tell women they’re a “don’t,” publish features on “How I Got Him to Notice Me,” or judge celebs as “sexy or slutty.” Resurrecting the crazy advice we used to read and submit and share with all our friends is, for the most part, a delightful combination of illuminating and embarrassing—the kind of cringe that comes with a healthy dose of self-mockery. The celebrity gossip and going-out tops and stories about girls our age doing cool things shaped us, for better and for worse. "Teen magazines were the way that girls would really learn some important stuff about their bodies that maybe they were too afraid to talk about or ask about," says Schultz.
But the lingering shadow of TSS feels like something different. Maybe it was covered more than it should have been relative to all the other things about our bodies we should have been learning. Or maybe headlines like "I Almost Died of Toxic Shock Syndrome" were just designed to burn themselves into our naive pubescent brains.
Either way, TSS still looms large. Despite the fact that Lewis has never posted about the condition, she says she's gotten a dozen DMs from women who still feel a little haunted every time they use a tampon. “Seriously, what can women do to not walk around worried all the time?” she says.
For starters, next time I find myself losing sleep over something I read when I was 13, I’ll remind myself to trust the 99% of my brain that doesn’t still follow the advice of teen magazines.
Macaela MacKenzie is a senior editor at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour