Toxic shock syndrome is a rare but serious medical condition caused by a bacterial infection. This condition is the result of toxins produced by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium.
Although toxic shock syndrome has been linked to tampon use in menstruating women, this condition can affect men, children, and people of all ages. According to the National Institutes of Health, tampon use is a factor in less than half of toxic shock cases. (NIH, 2010)
Infection usually occurs when bacteria enters your body through an opening in your skin. For instance, bacteria can enter through a cut, sore, or other wound. Experts are not sure why tampon use sometimes leads to the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some believe that a tampon left in place for a long period of time attracts bacteria. Another possibility is that tampon fibers scratch the vagina, creating an opening for bacteria to enter your bloodstream. (Mayo Clinic, 2011)
Risk factors for this condition include a recent skin burn, skin infection, or surgery. Other risk factors may include:
- recent childbirth
- use of a diaphragm or vaginal sponge to prevent pregnancy
- an open skin wound
Toxic Shock-Like Syndrome
A different but similar condition can result from toxins produced by the group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacterium. This is sometimes referred to as streptococcal toxic shock syndrome or toxic shock-like syndrome (TSLS). It occurs when bacteria of this type are present in parts of your body where bacteria are not usually found. For instance, it would be abnormal to find this type of bacteria in your blood, muscles, or lungs.
The symptoms and treatment for this syndrome are nearly identical to those of toxic shock syndrome. However, TSLS is not associated with tampon use.
People who are at greater risk for a GAS infection are also more likely to develop TSLS. Your risk may be increased if you:
- have diabetes
- are an alcoholic
- have chickenpox (varicella)
- have undergone surgery
Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome can vary from person to person. In most cases, symptoms appear suddenly. Common signs of this condition include:
- a sudden fever
- low blood pressure
- muscle aches
- redness of eyes, mouth, and throat
You might attribute symptoms of toxic shock syndrome to another medical condition, such as the flu. However, if you experience the above symptoms after using tampons or after a surgery or skin injury, contact your doctor immediately.
Your doctor may make a diagnosis of toxic shock syndrome based on a physical examination and your symptoms. Additionally, your doctor may check your blood and urine for traces of Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria.
Your doctor may also do a blood test to check your liver and kidney function. He or she may also take swabs of cells from your cervix, vagina, and throat. These samples are analyzed for the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome.
Toxic shock syndrome is a medical emergency; many people with toxic shock syndrome need to be hospitalized. Some people have to stay in the intensive care unit for several days so that medical staff can closely monitor them. Your doctor will most likely prescribe an intravenous (IV) antibiotic, which is a drug that will help you fight the bacterial infection in your body.
Other treatment methods for toxic shock syndrome vary depending on the underlying cause. For example, if a vaginal sponge or tampon triggered toxic shock, your doctor may need to remove this foreign object from your body. If an open wound or surgical wound caused your toxic shock syndrome, the doctor will drain pus or blood from the wound to help clear up any infection.
Other possible treatments include:
- medication to stabilize blood pressure
- IV fluids to fight dehydration
- gamma globulin injections to suppress inflammation and boost your body’ immune system
Toxic shock syndrome is a life-threatening medical condition. In fact, this condition is deadly in up to 50 percent of cases, according to the National Institutes of Health. (NIH, 2010)
In some instances, toxic shock syndrome can affect major organs in the body. If left untreated, complications associated with this disease include:
- liver failure (inability of the liver to carry out its normal functions)
- kidney failure (inability of the kidneys to remove fluid and waste from the body)
- heart failure (inability of the heart to pump blood to organs and tissues)
- shock (reduced blood flow through the body that impairs physical and mental functions)
Signs of liver failure may include:
- yellowing of the skin and eyeballs (jaundice)
- upper abdominal pain
- difficulty concentrating
Signs of kidney failure may include:
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle cramps
- persistent itching
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- high blood pressure
- sleep problems
- swelling in the feet and ankles
- problems urinating
Signs of heart failure may include:
- heart palpitations
- chest pain
- lack of appetite
- inability to concentrate
- shortness of breath
Certain precautions can reduce your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome. These precautions include:
- changing your tampon every four to eight hours
- wearing a low-absorbency tampon or sanitary napkin during menstruation
- wearing a sanitary napkin on light-flow days
- washing your hands frequently to remove any bacteria
- keeping cuts and surgical incisions clean and changing dressings often
Do not wear tampons if you have a personal history of toxic shock syndrome. This disease can recur.