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The Truth about Toxic Shock Syndrome

The Truth about Toxic Shock Syndrome

By Dana DeMercurio

Toxic shock syndrome doesn’t often make the press, so when California model Lauren Wasser divulged in a Vice article a few months ago that she lost her leg in 2012 due to TSS, it caught international attention and raised thousands of questions about tampon awareness and safety. As for consumers, we suspect that vaginas around the world clammed up in shock and horror at the thought of losing a leg to this syndrome (isn’t having a period rough enough?).

With this recent alarming case, it had us pondering: when was the last time you opened a box of tampons and actually read the how-to pamphlet and associated text regarding the very real and terrifying toxic shock syndrome? If the answer you’re searching for is never, then here’s a little refresher course courtesy of Tampax:

“The warning signs of TSS include: a sudden high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, a rash that looks like a sunburn, dizziness, muscle aches or fainting or near falling when standing up. TSS can rapidly progress from flu-like symptoms to a serious illness that can be fatal.”

But here’s the truth: tampons aren’t solely to blame for this infection. Instead, it’s how the tampon interacts with your body as a whole. A tampon plays only a supporting role in TSS contraction; it’s only when mingling with bacteria already in the vagina that it can cause a serious and sometimes fatal reaction. The rare bacterial infection known as Staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as Staph) is what can cause a life-threatening drop in blood pressure and irreversible organ damage when paired with tampon use. Basically, vaginas are a petri dish of bacteria, and of the 20% of women who already carry Staph bacteria, using a tampon can create an ideal breeding ground for TSS and other complications.

It’s important to also mention the amount of chemicals being shoved “up there” when using a tampon. The tampon itself is made using rayon – a semi-synthetic fiber that, for the purpose of tampons, is bleached using toxic chemical compounds such as sulfuric acid, chlorine, caustic soda and carbon disulphide. And if you’re using scented tampons, well…add a few more chemicals to that list. How safe can all that be to your vagina, not to mention surrounding internal tissues? And if you think your vagina is safe once the tampon is taken out, think again. Tampon products often leave behind fibers that can not only cause TSS, but vaginal and bladder infections as well.

Many women believe that tampon maintenance simply means changing it every 8 hours or when it starts to feel heavy, but the ugly truth is there are plenty of ways women are using their tampons incorrectly, which could result in TSS or other vaginal infections.

If tampons make up your entire menstrual product arsenal, then make sure you’re hitting these three key hygiene tricks to keep you and your vagina virus-free.

Wash your hands BEFORE insertion: A lot of women only wash their hands after inserting a tampon, but imagine the plethora of bacteria already living on your fingertips and under your nails just from the bathroom door handle alone! If you’re not washing before insertion, you’re potentially shoving lots of disgusting germs into your vagina by contaminating the tampon.

Don’t use tampons for heavy discharge: Discharge is a normal occurrence before and/or after a menstrual cycle, but plugging it with a tampon is not the solution. Using a tampon for discharge can mess with your vagina’s pH balance and natural acidity, potentially wreaking havoc on your health. It’s definitely best to use a panty liner when experiencing discharge.

Keep the String Clean: A lot is going on in your nether-regions during your period, and keeping the tampon string clean is often overlooked. Peeing can cause a wet, stinky string that may need to be changed (because who wants a pee-soaked string in their underwear all day?). Keeping the string clean after a bowel movement is important as well. If bacteria lands on the string via wiping, it could easily find its way to your vagina and create a whole host of problems, including certain types of infections.