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If you’re like me, it’s probably been a while since you’ve heard anything about toxic shock syndrome (TSS). But now, the terrifying story of Californian Lauren Wasser has brought the life-threatening illness back into the spotlight. Vice recently reported that the model, who almost died three years ago and ultimately lost her leg and several toes, is now suing the Kimberly-Clark Corporation’maker of Kotex Natural Balance tampons’after the tampon she was using tested positive for TSS.
The story may have left you wondering about toxic shock’and worried about that box of tampons in your bathroom. Don’t be put off. Here’s what you need to know.
Toxic shock syndrome is an illness caused by the release of toxins produced by certain bacteria. These bacteria’staphylococcus aureus (staph) and group A streptococcus (strep)’are found in many women’s bodies, but in rare cases, the toxins can enter the bloodstream and cause TSS.
‘Most people’over 80%’will develop antibodies against the toxins by the time they reach their teenage years,’ explains Dr. Anthony Chow, professor emeritus in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of British Columbia. ‘For some reason, some women just do not make antibodies and therefore are not protected.’ For a person to develop TSS, they have to lack the antibodies to the toxin and have the specific strain of bacteria present in their bodies.
Wearing a tampon can create the ideal environment for the staph bacteria to grow. But while TSS is often associated with tampon use, there are other risk factors. ‘Tampons are not the only vehicle that can facilitate toxic shock,’ says Dr. Chow, noting that, in rare cases, cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges can pose a risk.
TSS can also affect men and women who have been exposed to staph bacteria while recovering from surgery, a burn, or an open wound. Women are at a higher risk just after childbirth, too. (This past May, a woman from Belle River, Ont. died a few weeks after giving birth. The cause of death was TSS.)
Do the materials in a tampon’rayon, cotton, or a blend of both’make a difference? The Vice article quotes an expert on TSS who believes that using 100% cotton tampons lowers the risk, but Chow believes it’s not that simple. ‘It’s never just one single factor, multiple factors have to be present. The fibers in tampons by themselves are not sufficient to cause any disease.’
Plus, according to Health Canada, there’s no evidence that rayon tampons pose a greater risk of TSS than cotton tampons of the same absorbency. (FYI: Tampons are regulated as medical devices by Health Canada, which requires that all packaging labels list the risks and symptoms of TSS.) The bottom line: Any tampon’regardless of what it’s made of’can create the right conditions to cause toxic shock.
There’s no reason to stop using tampons altogether, as long as you’re smart about it. To reduce your risk of TSS, make sure to:
‘ Change your tampons regularly, at least every four to eight hours
‘ Use the lowest absorbency tampon that will handle your flow
‘ Avoid wearing tampons at night; use pads instead
‘ Wash your hands before and after handling a tampon or applicator
‘ Be careful not to scratch your vaginal lining when inserting a tampon; avoid applicators
‘ Remove menstrual sponges, diaphragms or cervical caps when they are not needed; never leave these devices in for more than 24 hours
‘ Keep any cuts or wounds clean, and change the dressings often
TSS is rare, but the infection can spread really quickly, so know the symptoms. ‘The two things that should alert patients and physicians are a very high fever and a sudden drop in blood pressure, which could cause fainting spells,‘ explains Chow. Watch for flu-like indicators such as muscle aches, headaches, and vomiting or diarrhea. If you experience these symptoms while wearing a tampon, remove it and get medical care right away.