Every once in a while, we hear horrifying stories about women who become gravely ill, lose limbs, or even die from toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a condition often associated with tampon use. If you’re someone who prefers tampons to other menstrual supplies, it’s easy to find yourself freaking out about whether you’re putting yourself in danger by using them. Take a deep breath — there’s no need to panic. There are a lot of myths about toxic shock syndrome out there, which make figuring out how to stay safe especially difficult. Lucky for you, this post is gonna set things straight.
First thing’s first: What is toxic shock syndrome? TSS is a serious bacterial infection, associated historically with tampon use, though it can be contracted in a variety of other ways. In most cases, people with TSS will need to be hospitalized and closely monitored. When untreated, TSS can lead to shock, renal failure, and even death.
Although TSS shouldn’t be taken lightly, it’s not the terrifying monster under your bed either. TSS is a serious and dangerous condition, but you shouldn’t persistently worry about it, nor should you let the myths surrounding it prevent you from living the life you want to lead. By learning the facts about TSS — including how best to prevent it — you can keep using tampons to your heart’s content. And the best place to start is by throwing these misconceptions about TSS out the door:
1. TSS is caused by tampons
Nope. TSS is caused by certain types of Staphylococcus bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. These bacteria can live harmlessly on the skin and inside the nose and throat. According to Dr. David Samadi for the New York Daily News, these bacteria become dangerous when they are in an environment that allows them to grow quickly, which causes them to produce toxins. If these toxins get into the bloodstream, they can interfere with organ function and damage tissue, potentially with grave results.
Scientists don’t fully understand why tampons have been linked to TSS. Owen Montgomery, M.D., chairman of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told Cosmopolitan that one issue is that, when a tampon is left inside the vagina for way too long, it becomes a “welcoming environment for bacteria to flourish.” As the bacteria multiply, they can release toxins into your system.
2. OK, so maybe TSS isn’t caused by tampons, but it’s only associated with tampon use, right?
Wrong. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, fewer than half of TSS cases involve tampons. TSS can also be linked to burns, skin infections (even with something as small as an infected insect bite), and surgical incisions. What has to happen for someone to get TSS is that they have to have Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes; these bacteria have to grow and release toxin; and this toxin has to get into the blood. That process does not require menstruation or tampons to be involved.
It’s also important to note that tampons aren’t the only objects associated with TSS — any device inserted into the vagina carries a risk. That includes contraceptive sponges and diaphragms, as well as menstrual cups.
3. TSS is common.
Given how frequently people mention TSS in relation to tampons, you might think that TSS is easy to get, or that a lot of tampon users get it. That’s false — TSS is extremely rare. Dr. Montgomery told Cosmo that only 1 or 2 out of every 100,000 women are diagnosed with TSS — that’s a chance of about .002 percent. And while TSS is a very serious illness for people who do get it, it’s also not as fatal as you might think; Dr. Montgomery estimates that fatalities occur in four to five percent of patients who have TSS. (Who, again, are very, very rare).
4. Only women can get it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, around half of TSS cases affect menstruating women. The other half occurs in children, men, and post-menopausal women.
5. If you leave in a tampon for too long, you’ll definitely get TSS.
Leaving a tampon inside your vagina for a very long time is a risk factor for TSS; in one recent case, for example, a student contracted TSS after leaving a tampon in for nine days. But, even in cases in which women leave tampons in for too long, TSS is still very rare. Most of the time when a woman forgets about a tampon for an extended period, the worst thing that will happen is that she’ll have to head over to her OBGYN to have the (now very smelly) thing removed.
6. TSS symptoms are vagina-centric.
You might think that menstrual-related TSS would cause pain in your lady-parts, but actually the symptoms of TSS are more akin to having the flu. If you’re suddenly experiencing a high fever, skin rashes (especially on your hands and feet), vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, confusion, aching muscles, or seizures, seek medical attention ASAP, especially if you’ve been using tampons or other vaginal insertion devices, or you have an infected skin lesion or surgical incision.
“I love tampons! Do I have to stop using them?”
No. Tampons are safe when used correctly. That means taking some simple precautions:
- You should always use the lowest absorbency tampon that you can (so don’t just use “Super” by default.)
- Change your tampon every four to eight hours. (If you sleep for 12-hour shifts on the weekends, switch to a pad at night).
- Wash your hands before and after you insert a tampon to prevent spreading bacteria.