While you may not have experienced Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), if you’re a woman you’re almost guaranteed to have heard about it. TSS is likely to have been explained to you as a condition that happens to your body when you leave a tampon in for too long – and while that’s definitely true, there’s a little more to TSS than just infection from sanitary products.
Also known by some as Septic Shock, TSS is often associated with young women, but it can affect anyone of any age – including men. But why does it happen, and is there anything we can do to prevent the syndrome?
What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?
Toxic shock syndrome is caused by toxins produced by the staphylococcus or streptococcus bacteria. These bacteria live on the skin anyway, but if they get deeper within the body they are able to release damaging toxins that can affect organ function.
The condition is rare, with around 40 people estimated to be diagnosed with the condition every year according to NHS England. However, it can be life-threatening when not treated immediately.
Toxic Shock Syndrome causes
Although it can affect anyone and can be introduced through any wound, Toxic Shock Syndrome is most commonly associated with tampon use in women. 'Not much is known about why tampon use and TSS are linked, but it is thought that prolonged use of tampons, where the bacteria is present, can cause it to enter the bloodstream through the uterus or small cuts in the wall of the vagina,' says Dr Eskander.
While tampons are most likely to be the cause, there are other factors that can increase your risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome. Cuts, burns, bites or surgical wounds, childbirth or even female contraceptives such as a cap or a diaphragm can lead to TSS, while staphylococcal or streptococcal infections, such as cellulitis or impetigo may also increase your risk.
Can Toxic Shock Syndrome affect men?
Women are more likely to develop TSS if they use tampons regularly, but men can also be affected through the above causes, such as cuts or wounds.
Toxic Shock symptoms
Toxic Shock Syndrome symptoms present fairly obviously, since they often have physical effects. They will get worse rapidly, and it’s recommended that you seek medical help immediately if you’re worried that you’ve developed TSS. The symptoms can include:
A high temperature or fever
Feeling sick, or being sick
Flu-like symptoms (eg headache, a cough, sore throat, sore muscles or chills).
A rash that could be mistaken for sunburn
Dizziness or fainting
Toxic Shock Syndrome treatment
Toxic Shock Syndrome is severe and will require admission to hospital for treatment. If you think you may be displaying any of the symptoms, contact your local doctor or call NHS 111 as soon as possible. If these symptoms become extreme, go to your nearest accident and emergency department or call 999.
If you’re wearing a tampon, remove it immediately, and make sure you tell medical professionals about it. If they believe you have TSS, you’ll be sent to hospital. 'Antibiotics will be administered along with oxygen and fluids to keep you hydrated. If kidney function is affected then temporary dialysis might be required. In extreme cases surgery may be necessary to remove affected tissue,' says Dr Eskander.
'TSS is very rare but is life-threatening and so it’s important to take measures to avoid it where possible.' It can take many weeks to get better from TSS.
Toxic Shock Syndrome prevention
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. 'Risk of contracting TSS through tampon use can be reduced by using low absorbency tampons and changing them frequently (every 4-8 hours or more if required),' says Dr Eskander. 'It's also advisable to alternate between tampons and sanitary towels, and if you wear tampons during the night, insert a fresh one before bed, and ensure first thing in the morning that it’s removed.
'Menstrual cups are also a good, hygienic alternative to tampons which lead to only a very small amount of blood coming through. Initially they can feel a bit clumsy to fit, but are easy to get the hang of after a few times.'
Other preventions include cleaning wounds thoroughly and quickly, and seeking medical help if they’re extreme to minimise the chance of bacteria developing. If using female barrier contraception, be sure to follow instructions, and it’s advisable not to use it – or tampons – if you’ve had TSS before.
❗Most people will make a full recovery, but if you’re concerned about Toxic Shock Syndrome or have any questions, ask your GP for advice.
Last updated: 16-12-2020
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