Health & Wellness

What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

Woman talking with daughter about Toxic Shock Syndrome in bedroom

What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

By Dr. Staci Tanouye OB/GYN, MD

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare, life-threatening but preventable infection that can occur in both females and males of any age. Most people experiencing periods have been warned of TSS at some point in their lives. It’s very important to take infections like this seriously and to fully understand what it is, how it is developed and necessary precautions to avoid it. Despite its severity, TSS is rare and not something to be afraid of if you’re taking the proper sanitation precautions to avoid it and understand the warning signs to catching and treating TSS early.

The most common ways to develop toxic shock syndrome include:

  • Using menstrual products such as tampons, pads, and menstrual cups beyond recommended usage durations
  • Having cuts or burns on your skin
  • Using contraceptive sponges or diaphragms
  • Having recent surgery or a viral infection
  • Having a staphylococcal infection or streptococcal infection, such as a throat infection, impetigo or cellulitis

TSS is caused by certain strains of bacteria such as:

  • :Staphylococcus aureus
  • Bacteria that lives on your body and can enter your bloodstream through skin wounds and small tears in your vagina.

  • :Streptococcus pyogenes
  • This type of bacteria can cause TSS in people who have recently had an infection caused by group A strep such as strep throat, scarlet fever, and impetigo.

  • :Clostridium sordellii
  • Bacteria typically found in your vagina and can enter the uterus during menstruation, childbirth, or other gynecological related procedures.

All of the above have one thing in common – in each, bacteria enter the skin and invades the bloodstream. These strains of bacteria produce toxins that get into your bloodstream and can affect your heart, kidneys, or liver.

Common symptoms of toxic shock syndrome include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden high fever, chills, and body aches
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Redness in eyes and throat
  • Peeling of skin on soles of feet or palms of hands
  • Rash or red dots on skin that covers most of the body
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Bruising or bleeding problems

The onset of symptoms typically occurs soon after the bacteria invades the bloodstream, and symptoms are often quick and severe. It’s important to seek medical care as soon as you start experiencing any abnormal symptoms.

Getting a quick diagnosis is vital when fighting TSS. The infection can be diagnosed through a combination of the following methods:

  • Vaginal examination
  • Obtaining tissue from the wound or infected area
  • Blood or urine test
  • Obtaining tissue from the vagina, cervix, or throat depending on where the infection started

Once TSS is diagnosed, treatment will begin immediately to reduce any damage the infection might cause. Treatment can range anywhere from antibiotics to treat the infection to purified antibodies retrieved from donated blood to help your body fight the infection.

Prevention is an important part of avoiding TSS. Remaining vigilant about sanitation and keeping track of how long menstrual products have been inside the body are both helpful ways to avoid infection.

I recommend the following prevention methods to avoid TSS:

  • Change tampons every 4-8 hours and use the proper size tampon for your flow - avoid using super absorbent tampons if your flow is light
  • Keep surgical incisions clean and free of infection
  • Don’t use tampons if you aren’t on your period
  • Use sanitary pads at night to avoid wearing a tampon for longer than is recommended – U by Kotex® Allnighter Ultra-Thin Pads with Wings are great pads to help provide up to 100% leak-free protection all night long
  • Follow instructions when using menstrual products such as menstrual cups or contraceptives such as sponges or diaphragms that get inserted into the vagina
  • Since TSS reinfection is common, menstruating women should avoid using tampons if they have had TSS

Toxic shock syndrome is life-threatening and will not go away on its own. It’s always important to receive medical attention if you feel that something isn’t right. Being mindful of how long menstrual products such as tampons are in your body is a great way to make sure you are avoiding bacterial growth that could lead to TSS. If you have any of TSS symptoms during or soon after your period, remove your tampon and see a doctor immediately.

About Staci Tanouye OB/GYN, MD: Staci Tanouye, MD, OB-GYN is a physician in a private practice and an expert in adolescent health, sexual health, reproductive health, and menopausal health. She has become one of the leading gynecologists on social media with the mission to educate women and all people with vulvas to love their bodies through knowledge and empowerment.

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Kimberly-Clark makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.