Female Body

Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS): What Is It, Its Symptoms and More

I’ve recently had to use tampons due to a period emergency (think water parks) and I did a bit of research before jumping straight into it.

In my research, I came across a condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) and thought that it was something worth sharing. Here’s a breakdown of what I’ll be covering:

  • What is Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)?
  • Symptoms of TSS
  • How is TSS caused?
  • Complications
  • How is TSS Diagnosed?
  • How is TSS treated?
  • Can the risk of TSS be reduced?

What is Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)?

It is a rare but potentially fatal infection that is caused by the release of toxins into the bloodstream. This is due to an overgrowth of a type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, which is found in many females. It is widely associated with the use of tampons and has also been linked to the use of menstrual sponges, diaphragms and cervical cups.

TSS is not particularly common. The chances of getting TSS is 1 in 100,000 . However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t get it if you don’t use a tampon. It is possible for both females and males to get this condition when bacteria gets into areas of injured skin like cuts, scrapes, surgical wounds and chicken pox.

Symptoms of TSS

So how do you know if you’re suffering from TSS? Symptoms often mimic the flu, making it difficult to detect. The possible signs and symptoms are as follows: 

  • A high fever of around 38.8°C
  • A rapid drop in blood pressure
  • Vomiting/Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Sunburn-like rash on any part of the body, particularly on your palms and soles
  • Muscle aches
  • Redness of eyes, throat and mouth
  • Seizures

How is TSS caused?

TSS is caused by a poison produced by the bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus. Staph is usually harmlessly present in the female vagina. However, 2 conditions are needed to be present for TSS to occur:

  1. The bacteria needs an environment in which they can multiply quickly and release toxins
  2. The toxins must get released into the bloodstream

A tampon saturated with blood is definitely a conducive environment for the rapid growth of  bacteria. This is why TSS is most common in menstruating women that use highly absorbent tampons. Research has shown that the material of the tampon matters as well. Polyester foam provides a better environment for growth than cotton.

For cases of menstrual cups and sponges, TSS can occur if the device is left in the vagina for too long i.e more than 30 hours or when bits of the sponge are left in the vagina.


TSS can affect major organs in the body. If TSS isn’t treated, organs like the liver and kidney may start to fail. The patient may also suffer from seizures, bleeding and heart failure.

How is TSS Diagnosed?

A doctor can make a diagnosis by conducting a physical examination and looking out for symptoms. Your blood and urine samples might also be taken to check for traces of Staphylococcus bacteria in your bloodstream. They may also take swabs from your cervix, vagina and throat which will be analyzed for traces of the Staph bacteria.

How is TSS treated?

Those with very serious conditions may be required to stay in the Intensive Care Unit for several days so that they can closely monitored by the medical staff. An Intravenous (IV) drip and antibiotics might be prescribed to help you fight the infection.

Other treatment methods can vary depending on the underlying cause. If it was a tampon or a piece of menstrual sponge that triggered the toxic sponge, the doctor will have to remove that foreign object from your body.

If it was triggered by an infection of an open or surgical wound, the doctor would have to drain any pus or blood out to clear the infection.

Can the risk of TSS be reduced?

Some precautions to take that can reduce your chances of TSS:

  • Change your tampon at least every 4 – 8 hours
  • Wear a tampon of the lowest absorbency
  • On low flow days, wear a sanitary pad instead of a tampon
  • Wash your hands frequently to remove bacteria 
  • Keep any cuts or surgical wounds clean and change dressings frequently

I hope this article gives you a better idea of what Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is, and how you can avoid it!

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