If you choose to use tampons on your period, you've likely heard terrifying things about toxic shock syndrome (TSS). I swore off tampons for years because I was afraid of TSS, even though I wasn't quite sure what it actually entailed. But what is toxic shock syndrome? The rare condition is sometimes life-threatening, and it is caused by bacterial infection. Symptoms include a high fever, low blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea and confusion, and it can seem like the flu at first. In dire cases, patients may even lose limbs, which model Lauren Wasser experienced firsthand after the condition caused her to lose her right leg. On Dec. 29, People reported that Wasser may have her left leg amputated as well. Wasser told the magazine that amputation is "a hard decision, but my only way to freedom."
Bustle spoke with Wasser in November about her experience with toxic shock syndrome and how it changed her life. She was diagnosed in 2012 and spent four months hospitalized. In that interview, she told Bustle her left leg still caused her pain.
"I'm in a prison, and I'm in constant daily pain," Wasser told Bustle. "I don’t have toes and my heel is really badly damaged, and I have to go to wound care every Monday to see a doctor because the fat pads are no longer there. My bones are growing, because my body is producing too much calcium trying to fix itself. As they grow, and I’m walking, there’s no fat pad and I’m walking on soft, delicate skin — it’s reopening the skin, consistently. They’ve already had to go back and cut the bones back twice. My body is just being relentless."
Although TSS isn't only contracted through tampons, people who menstruate and use tampons are at a higher risk. Wasser has become an outspoken advocate for people with toxic shock syndrome, and she has called for the National Institutes of Health to regulate and monitor feminine hygiene products more stringently.
"It's a huge issue that affects every woman and man, because every man has a woman in their life — mom, sister, wife, whomever," she told Bustle in November.
Toxic shock syndrome sounds absolutely terrifying, so I totally understand the urge to swear off tampons forever after reading about it. But it's important to remember that it's rare — about 1 in 100,000 women develop the condition yearly, according to USA Today. And remember, tampons aren't the only cause of TSS. The condition can also develop from burns, skin infections and incisions, although TSS and tampons are often linked because a tampon left in a vagina for too long can create a breeding ground for bacteria.
The easiest way to prevent tampon-related TSS is by changing your tampon every four to six hours, using pads on lighter-flow days and keeping your tampon box in a cool, dry place. You can also opt for another feminine hygiene product like a menstrual cup, although one study claimed menstrual cups may be more prone to harboring Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that causes toxic shock syndrome. If you feel like you may be showing signs of TSS, go to a hospital immediately. Wasser told Bustle that she was 10 minutes away from dying when she was treated by paramedics.
Wasser's drive and determination are super inspiring — she hasn't stopped modeling even though she's had to deal with a debilitating condition that almost killed her, and she's been frank about how amputation has affected her life. Her openness has led to even more people being informed about the condition, and I can only hope it'll prevent future TSS cases.