Toxic shock syndrome is a spectre that hangs over the heads of any and all tampon users to some extent. I’ve been wearing tampons for about ten years now, and despite a pretty rough learning curb–you know, trying to make them work on and off for a few years before the one time when it finally did–I find them pretty reliable during that time of the month. But even after all that time, I still have a small, latent fear of developing toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal illness caused by toxic bacteria. Don’t we all? I mean, the thought of harmlessly putting a tampon up your cooch one second and going into septic shock a few hours later and, uh, dying is pretty effing horrifying.
But are TSS fears legit or overblown? Are you actually at a high risk of developing TSS after inserting a tampon, especially if you leave it in for longer than eight hours? Let’s get down to the bottom of this, shall we?
Okay, what exactly is toxic shock syndrome?
Toxic Shock Syndrome (otherwise known as TSS) is an illness caused by bacterial toxins. Hospitalization is necessary and while recovery is possible, it has the potential to be fatal within hours.
What’s the association with tampons? It’s not like the vagina is the only place in the body with bacteria.
So here’s the quick and dirty: Back in 1978, company Proctor and Gamble did some test marketing for an ultra absorbent tampon called Rely. The goal was to create a tampon that could withstand an entire menstrual cycle without leaking, and the finished product was a tampon that could hold more than 20 times its weight. Fast forward a couple years to 1980, when doctors reported a spate of TSS incidents. It felt like a mini epidemic, and the cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC concluded that people who used Rely tampons were at an increased risk of developing TSS.
While the materials used in Rely tampons posed a unique risk for developing TSS, it was discovered that higher absorbency tampons in general can increase one’s chances of having TSS.
While tampon manufacturers have learned from the error in their ways, TSS is still strongly associated with tampons, and there’s still a risk of developing TSS for any and all tampon users.
What happens to your body when you get TSS? Why is it so deadly?
Ugh, nasty stuff. Usually, you’ll experience a spike in body temperature, causing a fever. Other symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, muscle ache, rash, headache, and a drop in blood pressure. The body basically starts to shut down, depriving vital organs of oxygen. This can lead to kidney failure, brain damage, and eventually death.
Most cases occur in sufferers under the age of 19, and up to 30 percent contract it again in the future.
So tell it to me straight: What are my chances of getting TSS from a tampon if I use one correctly?
Finally, some good news: Your chances of getting TSS are low. Like, super low.
To be a little more specific, one or two out of every 100,000 women contract TSS. So your chances of contracting it are, like, 0.002 percent. In other words…you really shouldn’t worry about it.
What about my chances if I use a tampon incorrectly? For example, if I kept a tampon in for longer than eight hours?
Okay, I don’t want the tampon gods to kill me or anything, but here’s the truth: You can wear a tampon for more than eight hours and you won’t necessarily get TSS. Sure, your chances increase the longer you wear a tampon, especially if it is high absorbency. And I’m in no way advocating ignoring the instructions on the tampon box. But sometimes s**t happens–or, you know, you fall asleep–and that bad boy is in there for longer than eight hours. You still, most likely, will not contract TSS.
I still need reassurance.
You have a higher chance of dying in a car crash than getting TSS. Let me guess, you’re still going to get into a car.
It’s really easy to get caught up in the odd TSS case or two that makes the news every now and then. It’s scary, but remember that that some folks contract TSS after wearing a tampon for nine days straight. Use the lowest absorbency that works with your flow, change your tampons regularly, and you’ll most likely be just fine.
What if I want to avoid any and all chances of getting TSS?
So, heads up: People get TSS for reasons other than tampons. TSS isn’t the tampon disease! Other things like skin infections, surgery, severe burns, etc, can cause TSS. But when it comes to menstruation, the best way to avoid your chances of developing TSS is by wearing pads or menstrual cups.
Okay, but if I want to stick to tampons…you’re sure I won’t develop TSS and die?
There are no certainties in life, so I can’t make that promise. There are probably people who contracted TSS who also thought they would never get it. But the numbers are clear: Your chances of getting TSS are so low that you really shouldn’t worry about it as long as you’re using tampons responsibly and staying in tune with your body.
Are you sort of afraid of getting TSS? Do you avoid tampons because of it? Tell us in the comments!