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Toxic shock syndrome

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This is a syndrome of severe illness with high fever and collapse caused by the toxin secreted by a specific Staph. or Strep. germ. It was originally associated with prolonged tampon use - leaving tthe same one in for a long period of time, allowing a Staphylococcus germ to multiply and secrete the toxin.

While the infection often occurs in menstruating women, it can also affect men, children and postmenopausal women. Risk factors for toxic shock syndrome include the use of tampons, especially prolonged use, the use of barrier forms of contraception, skin wounds and surgery.

Signs and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome develop suddenly, and the disease is fatal in about 5 percent of all cases. The number of cases has dropped dramatically since the early 1980s. You can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome may include:

  • A sudden high fever.

  • Vomiting or diarrhea.

  • A rash resembling a sunburn, particularly on your palms and soles. After a week or so, the skin on your hands and feet generally begins to peel.

  • Confusion.

  • Muscle aches.

  • Redness in your eyes, mouth and throat.

  • Seizures.

  • Headaches.


Staph bacteria often are present in and on your body and typically cause no problems. Researchers still don't know exactly how tampons cause toxic shock syndrome. Some believe that when superabsorbent tampons are left in place for a long time, the tampons become a breeding ground for bacteria. Others have suggested that the superabsorbent fibers in the tampons can scratch the surface of the vagina, making it possible for bacteria or their toxins to enter the bloodstream.

There have been a few cases of toxic shock syndrome in women who had been wearing a diaphragm or a contraceptive sponge. It's possible for anyone to develop toxic shock syndrome in the course of a staph infection. The syndrome may occur because of skin wounds or surgery.

When to seek medical advice

Call your doctor immediately if you experience the signs or symptoms of toxic shock syndrome, especially if you're menstruating or have just finished menstruating and have been using tampons. Tell your doctor what your symptoms are, how long you've had them and when your period started.

You may need to provide blood and urine samples to test for the presence of a staph infection. Samples from your vagina, cervix and throat may be taken for laboratory analysis by using cotton swabs.


If you develop toxic shock syndrome, you'll likely be hospitalized and you'll need antibiotics. Doctors will look for the source of the infection. Along with antibiotics, you'll receive supportive care to treat the signs and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. If your blood pressure begins to drop, you'll need medication to stabilize it and fluids to prevent dehydration. The toxins produced by the staph bacteria may result in kidney failure. If your kidneys fail, you may need dialysis.


You can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently, at least every four to eight hours. Use the lowest absorbency tampon you can and try to alternate using tampons and sanitary napkins whenever possible.

Toxic shock syndrome can recur. Some people who've had it once get it again. If you've had toxic shock syndrome or a prior staph infection, don't use tampons at all.

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Last Modified : 03/15/08 02:29 AM