Toxic shock syndrome

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Women who've used tampons may have read about a condition called toxic shock syndrome, a rare but serious condition  that can be deadly. Find out more about this condition.

toxic shock syndrome_mdhilWhat is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare and life-threatening condition that is caused by germs that circulate in the blood. Toxins are secreted by bacteria which infect the body’s organs. Toxic shock syndrome was first found in children. However, the condition did not become familiar until an epidemic in 1981, when toxic shock syndrome was linked to women who use "highly spongy" tampons.

How common is toxic shock syndrome?

As per the UK Public Health Laboratory Service reports, between 1985 and 1990, there was an average of 20 official cases of TSS every year, out of a total population of 58 million. In the US, around one in 1,00,000 menstruating women got affected by this disease every year. TSS can also affect men, children and postmenopausal women, especially if they have skin wounds and/or have had surgery. Statistics reveal that one-third of TSS cases occur amongst men.

Causes of toxic shock syndrome 

Most commonly, it is the bacteria that live in the vagina of a woman that gets infected, and growth is encouraged by the presence of a tampon. However, other parts of the body can also produce these toxins.

Common sources of TSS include highly-absorbent tampons, gauze or cotton packs used in the nasal area, surgical wounds, childbirth or other skin wounds.

Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome can develop suddenly and become fatal. Any of the following symptoms can occur in TSS:

  • Fever greater than 102 F
  • Rash, redness of the eyes, the lips, and the tongue. The rashes are generally widespread and can be seen on the palms and soles of the feet.
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Painful throat
  • Cough
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea (profuse and watery)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weakness (specially while standing)
  • Cognitive state of mind
  • Hypotension or low blood pressure

Treatment of toxic shock syndrome

If TSS is suspected, the patient should be immediately rushed to the hospital. If a woman is using a tampon at the time, she should get rid of as soon as possible.

At the hospital, a multi-pronged approach is used to treat the patient:

  • Oxygen - The patient is usually given oxygen to support breathing.
  • Fluids - Fluids are given to prevent dehydration and to bring blood pressure back to normal.
  • Kidneys - A dialysis machine is used to treat kidney failure. This is done to remove toxins from the blood.
  • Other damage - Damage to other parts the body like fingers, toes needs to be minimised. This may involve draining and cleaning. In extreme cases, a body extremity or parts of skin may need to be surgically removed.
  • Antibiotics - A combination of antibiotics is administered.

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