Every month or so, women everywhere open a box of tampons and insert. And each time, there's that warning about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). And each time we ignore it. But the warning is there for a reason. TSS can and does happen each year to one or two out of every 100,000 women. That's about 1000 women each year in the United States alone who will develop TSS. In 1994, up to 99 percent of women who had TSS were using tampons.

What Is TSS?

TSS from tampons is the result of exotoxin producing strains of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium. The symptoms of TSS are similar to the flu and include fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and a sunburn-like rash. The infection progresses quickly to multi-system dysfunction and kills 5% of all women who develop it. While TSS can develop in men and women by means other than tampons, including barrier contraceptive devices, nasal surgery, and postoperative staphylococcal wound infections, TSS has most definitely been linked to tampon use.

Why Are Tampons Associated With TSS?

While there is no concrete answer, it is believed that tampons that contain synthetic ingredients aid in the development of TSS. It is also believed that the tampons, especially if too high of an absorbency level (i.e., super) is used, can scratch the walls of the vagina creating an opportunity for bacteria to grow. Leaving the tampon in too long can also help bacteria grow.

What Can I Do?

If you or your daughter uses tampons regularly, there are steps you can take to protect yourselves from TSS.

  • Avoid using high-absorbency tampons. These are easily left in too long and therefore invite bacteria to grow, and they are also more likely to scratch.
  • Don't leave a tampon in for more than 6 hours and don't sleep with one in.
  • Alternate between tampons and pads.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling a tampon.
  • Use organic cotton tampons, as they don't contain the synthetic ingredients that have been linked to TSS. Watch this video that shows what regular tampons can leave behind.
  • Try alternative products like The Diva Cup or Softcup.
  • Learn more about the potential dangers of tampon use from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

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