Toxic Shock Syndrome Is Not Just a Women’s Issue

In 2013, news spread that an innocent 14-year-old girl named Natasha Scott-Falber suddenly fell ill and died in the United Kingdom, leaving her family shocked and heartbroken. Initially, Scott-Falber was thought to have died from blood poisoning; however, her family discovered that her illness came only days after the first time she ever used a menstrual tampon. Following Natasha’s death, her family decided to create a campaign targeted at informing others about the very rare, yet potentially fatal illness known today as toxic shock syndrome.

The truth of the matter is that tampons do not themselves explicitly cause toxic shock syndrome

Seeming more like a myth than an actual medical diagnosis that impacts people’s lives, toxic shock syndrome tends to be among every young woman’s greatest nightmare — even with many unaware of what causes the infection or the necessary precautionary steps to take. Typically, older women inform their younger counterparts to simply never wear tampons, but this advice doesn’t offer much except fear and possible shame. The truth of the matter is that tampons do not themselves explicitly cause toxic shock syndrome. In fact, doctors are not completely sure as to the role tampons have in cases where women suffer from the illness. It is speculated that since super absorbent tampons seem to be the kind most associated with women suffering from toxic shock syndrome, the blood held over time is the potential issue.

Not much is known about toxic shock syndrome because it only recently came to light as an actual medical diagnosis. It may not come as a surprise to many that the medical field, primarily run by men for a large portion of time, was not too keen on delving into the ailments typically faced by women, especially not a woman on her period. However, in 1980 the United States’ Center for Disease Control received a report from investigators bout a brand new illness. The largest demographic suffering with this illness out of the recorded cases at the time was women, making up 95% of all victims.  A follow-up report found that there was a link between toxic shock syndrome and the use of tampons. This is where the fear of tampons began to take root. Following the widespread fear and a growing number of cases many brands began to recall their products, reestablishing their production and making it much safer for the modern day woman to have access to and safely use tampons.

While it may come as a relief to women who do use tampons, toxic shock syndrome is still a very real threat that can affect individuals who aren’t menstruating, including men and children, as well as women who don’t menstruate. This is because toxic shock syndrome is not caused by menstrual blood per se, but rather by two kinds of bacteria, staphylococcus aureus (staph) and group A streptococcus (strep). These two bacterias typically form on the outside of skin where they are harmless. However, if they enter the bloodstream (i.e. through a wound), dangerous toxins begin to form causing the illness. As scary as this sounds the effects of toxic shock syndrome sometimes go unnoticed. Here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • A sunburn-like rash (primarily on the hands and soles of feet)
  • Confusion
  • Muscle aches
  • Red discoloration of eyes, throat and mouth
  • Headaches
  • Seizures

These symptoms should be taken as strong indications of toxic shock syndrome, especially if they are experienced together and a doctor should be called immediately if they are detected.

Some factors associated with this illness in addition to the use of tampons are: surgery, open wounds or burns, viral infections and contraceptives such as the diaphragm and sponge. In the attempt to avoid this issue it is highly recommended to follow directions as closely as possible and always be on the lookout for possible symptoms during a time when these factors are in place. Toxic shock syndrome cane be treated and cured, however, it can also recur in patients. Health is a very important aspect of life and should always be taken seriously. While toxic shock syndrome is scary, it is preventable.


[Photo: Shutterstock / Elena Kharichkina]