According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately half of all cases of toxic shock syndrome caused by staph bacteria occur in women of menstruating age. Toxic shock syndrome or TSS is often thought to be a health problem that only affects women, menstruating women to be exact, like the 20 year old woman who accidentally left a tampon in for over a week in 2016! While menstruating women may have a greater likelihood of developing this dangerous condition, toxic shock syndrome can happen to anyone — including men, postmenopausal women and even children. (1) If you or someone you know is displaying signs of TSS, it is never something to take lightly.
So what is toxic shock syndrome? Toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, is a rare yet extremely serious medical emergency. It can cause major organ damage or even death if left untreated. It is estimated that toxic shock syndrome may be deadly in up to 50 percent of cases. (2) These are some really scary odds. This is why it’s so important to be aware of toxic shock symptoms as well as the best natural ways to prevent toxic shock syndrome in the first place.
What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome?
The toxic shock syndrome tampon connection is somewhat well-known, especially amongst women. The earliest cases of TSS are said to date back to the late 1970s. They were related to super-absorbent tampons. What is TSS or toxic shock syndrome? First of all, it’s important to know that TSS is a medical condition that can come on suddenly. And it can be fatal. It’s also a systemic infection, which means that it affects the entire body. Two different kinds of bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus (aka “staph”) or Streptococcus pyogenes (aka “strep“) can cause toxic shock syndrome symptoms. Most of the time, an overgrowth of staph bacteria causes toxic shock. (3)
Toxic shock syndrome can affect anyone, but it affects menstruating women the most, especially young women who use super-absorbent tampons. In fact, over a 33 percent of TSS cases are in women under the age of 19. Thankfully, some tampon makers have stopped making certain varieties of ultra absorbent tampons. This has helped to reduce the occurrence of TSS in menstruating women. But tampon usage is not the only thing linked to toxic shock syndrome. The use of cervical caps, menstrual sponges and diaphragms is also associated with TSS. Other people at risk of a toxic shock infection include men, women and children who have been exposed to staph bacteria during their recovery from childbirth (women), an open wound, a serious burn or surgery. Also, a man, woman or child who has been exposed to staph bacteria and uses a prosthetic device is also at risk. (4, 5)
The reason why toxic shock syndrome can be so serious is that the typical bodily response to the bacterial toxins causing TSS results in a really sharp decrease in blood pressure. This in turn robs the organs of vital oxygen. This can lead to death. Is there such a thing as toxic shock syndrome tampons? Not exactly, but the more absorbent the tampon and the longer a tampon is left in, the higher the risk of TSS.
Toxic Shock Syndrome Symptoms
So what exactly are the symptoms of toxic shock? Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome can include: (6)
- A sudden high fever, possibly accompanied by chills
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- A rash that looks similar to a sunburn, particularly on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
- Muscle aches
- Redness of the eyes, mouth and throat
Symptoms of TSS are never something to ignore or attempt to fix on your own. If you believe you are experiencing signs of TSS, seek medical care immediately, especially if you’ve recently been using tampons or have any type of skin infection.
There is also a health condition called toxic shock-like syndrome (TSLS), or streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. It’s similar, yet different, to TSS. While this condition can also result from strep bacteria (group A), TSLS is not linked to the usage of tampons. Individuals most at risk for toxic shock-like syndrome include diabetics, abusers of alcohol, those with chickenpox or anyone who has recently had surgery. (7)
Causes & Risk Factors
Now that you know the most common toxic shock syndrome symptoms, let’s talk about what causes TSS. Toxic shock syndrome can occur when staph or strep bacteria enter the body through a skin opening. Why is tampon usage so closely linked to TSS? Experts still seem unclear as to why exactly tampons can lead to toxic shock syndrome. One hypothesis is that the fibers of a tampon scratch the vagina. This then creates an entrance point(s) for bacteria to enter the tampon user’s bloodstream. Another theory is that when a tampon is left inside of the body for a long duration it attracts bacteria. This then leads to bacterial overgrowth. (8)
To be clear, not all staph or strep infections cause TSS. A toxin produced by certain varieties of of staph and strep bacteria, more specifically Staphylococcus aureus and group A streptococcus bacteria, causes toxic shock syndrome. These types of bacteria actually can be quite harmless to the body when they are found on the skin, nose or mouth. In fact, it’s normal to find traces of these types of bacteria in these locations. However, it’s when these varieties of bacteria are able to penetrate deeper into the body that a serious health problem can develop. Once inside the body, the bacteria can then release their toxins. These toxins are extremely threatening to the interior organs and tissues of a human being. (9)
- Having a staphylococcal infection or streptococcal infection, such as a throat infection, impetigo or cellulitis
- Tampon use during menstruation, especially super-absorbent tampons (with increased risk if you leave a tampon in for a long time)
- Using contraceptive sponges or diaphragms
- Recent childbirth
- Recent surgery
- Foreign bodies or packings (such as those used to stop nosebleeds) inside the body
- Having cuts, burns, recent incisions or any other openings in the skin
TSS is not something you can catch since it does not spread from person to person, which is good news. However, having toxic shock syndrome once does not provide immunity to this condition in the future. So it is possible to have TSS multiple times in one’s life. Again, if you think you may be exhibiting any toxic shock syndrome symptoms, always be on the safe side and seek immediate medical care. It truly could save your life.
There is no single test that can diagnose toxic shock syndrome. Your doctor will likely conduct a physical examination and look for common toxic shock syndrome symptoms including a fever, low blood pressure and rash. Sometimes, a blood test, a urine test and/or a swab of cells taken from the cervix or vagina (for a woman) may confirm the presence of the staph or strep bacteria that causes TSS in the body. Your doctor may request other testing, such as a blood test for liver and kidney function. (12)
Most people with toxic shock syndrome require hospitalization. During your hospital stay, you’ll likely receive antibiotics, blood pressure stabilizing medication, and hydrating fluids. Surgery to drain the infection or to cut out any nonliving tissue from the infection site may be needed. If the bacterial toxins from the staph or strep bacteria combined with low blood pressure lead to kidney failure, then dialysis may be a requirement of TSS treatment. (13)
5 Natural Ways to Prevent TSS
I want to state again that TSS is a medical emergency. I am not advising trying to cure TSS with home remedies. But I am happy to say that there are natural ways to prevent toxic shock syndrome symptoms in the first place.
1. Optimal Menstruation Maintenance
When menstruating, I recommend using chlorine-free pads rather than tampons. But if you’re going to use tampons, then always be on the conservative side when it comes to how long you use a tampon. So how long can you wear a tampon? Manufacturers typically say that tampons can be worn up to eight hours. (14) It’s also important to wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon to reduce bacteria.
Even though tampon makers say you can sleep with a tampon in, I would highly recommend not doing that. One good reason? Many people can easily end up going over the already high eight hour limit. If using a tampon during the day, make sure to change it regularly and never leave it in longer than the packaging directions. Of course, also never use more than one tampon at a time and always use the lowest absorbency possible for your menstrual flow. (15)
2. Previous TSS Patients — Avoid Tampons
It’s said that tampon makers in the U.S. no longer use the same design or materials that were previously linked to the occurrence of TSS. However, with that said, the Mayo Clinic still advises that if you have had toxic shock syndrome in the past, you should completely avoid tampons. Toxic shock syndrome can reoccur. So if you have a history of TSS, it’s best to be on the absolute safe side when it comes to managing your period and steer clear of tampons. (16)
3. Proper Wound Care
Whenever you have any kind of burn, cut, scrape, incision or any other wound to the skin, it’s very important that you take proper care of it to not only encourage its optimal healing, but also to prevent the entrance of bacteria such as the types of staph and strep bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome symptoms. Make sure to keep the skin area clean and use proper dressings such a Band-Aid®. If you’re in a high infection risk area, such as a nursing home or hospital, you’ll want to be extra cognizant of protecting any openings in your skin.
You should always let your doctor know right away if a cut, wound or incision displays any signs of infection such as redness, swelling or oozing.
4. Optimal Vitamin D Levels
Scientific research has demonstrated how vitamin D works to promote protective as well as adaptive immunity. Several studies have shown a link between low vitamin D levels and an increased occurrence of infections. Various immune cells in the body have actually been found to have vitamin D receptors as well as vitamin D metabolizers. So it makes sense that vitamin D can have such a powerfully positive effect on the immune system. (17, 18)
Keeping your vitamin D levels optimal is one way to keep your immune system functioning well so that it will keep out the invaders and overgrowth of bacteria that causes toxic shock syndromes. There are a lot of great sources of vitamin D that I recommend incorporating into your life on a regular basis.
5. Probiotic-rich Diet
Probiotics are by far one of my favorite immune boosters and boosting your immune system is one of the main ways to guard the body from all kinds of problems including toxic shock syndrome symptoms. What are probiotics? Probiotics are the good bacteria found in your digestive tract. They support the body’s ability to fight off infections and also to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. Getting probiotics on a daily basis from your diet and/or supplements is excellent for your immune system, which is an interactive network of organs, cells and proteins that protect the body from bacteria like the types that cause toxic shock syndrome symptoms.
Research has shown that probiotics from fermented milk or yogurt can improve the gut mucosal immune system and that infants who received probiotic supplements were less likely to have immune-mediated diseases in childhood. (19) Some great probiotic-rich food choices include goat milk yogurt, kefir, raw cheese, cultured vegetables like kimchi, natto and miso.
If you believe you are exhibiting signs of toxic shock syndrome, especially if you are menstruating and have been using tampons, seek urgent medical attention. Toxic shock can get dangerously bad very quickly. Complications due to TSS can include shock, renal failure and even death. (20) There are many symptoms of shock. Some possible shock symptoms can include: (21)
- a rapid pulse
- pale skin
- rapid breathing
- enlarged pupils
- changes in behavior such as agitation
If you are using a tampon, menstrual sponge, diaphragm, or cervical cap when you begin to have TSS symptoms, remove it right away, even before contacting your doctor. (22)
Toxic shock syndrome symptoms can definitely be alarming and TSS is a life-threatening situation, so prompt medical care is absolutely key. Much of the time TSS patients are menstruating women, but it’s important to know that any man, woman or child can exhibit toxic shock syndrome symptoms. In addition to the risk that tampons and certain forms of contraception pose to women, toxic shock syndrome can occur due to the entrance of bacteria into the body due to a recent childbirth, surgery or a variety of skin wounds. Basically, the staph or strep bacteria that can cause toxic shock syndrome are opportunistic and will take advantage of an easy entrance into the body.
Thankfully, there are several natural ways to prevent TSS that are all very doable and go a long way in protecting the body against bacterial invasion and infection. As with so many health conditions, strengthening your immune system is one of the best ways any one of any age can prevent toxic shock syndrome symptoms.