How to Know if You Have Toxic Shock Syndrome

Three Methods:Recognizing Symptoms of TSSConfirming and Treating TSSLimiting Your Risk for TSS

Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) was first identified in the 1970s and became a highly-publicized health concern during the 1980s. It has always been associated primarily with females who use extra-absorbent tampons, but anyone — including men and children — can come down with this condition. Vaginally-inserted female contraceptives, cuts and scrapes, nosebleeds, and even chickenpox can let in the staph or strep bacteria that release toxins into the bloodstream.[1] TSS can be hard to recognize because its symptoms mimic other conditions like the flu, but a quick diagnosis and treatment can be the difference between a full recovery and serious (and on rare occasions, fatal) complications. Use an assessment of your risk factors and symptoms to determine if you have TSS and need immediate treatment.

Method 1
Recognizing Symptoms of TSS

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    Watch for flu-like symptoms. Most cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome produce symptoms that can easily be mistaken for the flu or some other illness. Listen closely to your body to help ensure that you don’t miss such important signs of TSS.[2]
    • TSS can cause a fever (usually above 102 degrees Fahrenheit or 39 degrees Celsius), major muscle aches and pains, headaches, vomiting or diarrhea, and other flu-like symptoms. Weigh your risk for getting TSS (for instance, if you have an oozing surgical wound or are a menstruating young woman using tampons) versus your likelihood of having caught the flu. If it is reasonably plausible that you may have TSS, keep a close eye out for other symptoms.
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    Watch for visible signs of TSS like rashes on the hands, feet, or elsewhere. If there is a “telltale” sign of TSS, it is a sunburn-like rash that appears on the palms and/or soles of the feet. However, not every case of TSS includes the rash, and the rash can occur on any part of the body.[3]
    • People with TSS may also notice significant redness in or around the eyes, mouth, throat, and vagina. If you have an open wound, look for signs of infection such as redness, swelling, tenderness, or discharge.[4]
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    Identify other serious symptoms. Symptoms of TSS usually appear two to three days after infection, and often start off mild in nature. They will, however, progress rapidly as the condition worsens rapidly, so be vigilant in watching for them if you have any inkling that you might have TSS.[5]
    • Watch for a rapid drop in blood pressure, usually accompanied by dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting; confusion, disorientation, or seizures; or signs of kidney or other organ failure (such as significant area pain or signs of improper functioning).

Method 2
Confirming and Treating TSS

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    Seek immediate medical help if you suspect TSS. When caught early, Toxic Shock Syndrome is usually highly treatable. However, undetected TSS can progress rapidly and result in lengthy hospital stays and (in rare cases) irreversible organ failures, amputations, and even death.[6]
    • Play it safe. If you have symptoms of TSS, or if you have possible symptoms plus risk factors for TSS (like ongoing nosebleeds or extended female contraceptive use), get medical assistance right away.
    • Unless otherwise instructed when you contact medical assistance, immediately remove the tampon you are using (if relevant in your situation).[7]
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    Prepare for a substantial but usually successful treatment regimen. Although TSS can almost always be treated successfully when detected early, hospital stays of several days (sometimes in the ICU) are not uncommon. In most instances, the frontline treatment involves the use of one or more antibiotics.[8]
    • Symptom-based treatments will also occur based on the particulars of you case. These can include the provision of oxygen, IV fluids, pain or other medications, and sometimes kidney dialysis.
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    Take special precautions against recurrence. Unfortunately, once you have had TSS, you are approximately thirty percent more likely to get it again in the future. Therefore, you need to make some lifestyle changes and keep a keen eye out for symptoms if you want to avoid a severe recurrence.[9]
    • For example, if you have ever had TSS, you should not use tampons (rely on pads instead). You should also find alternate means of female contraception other than devices like sponges or diaphragms.

Method 3
Limiting Your Risk for TSS

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    Use tampons cautiously. When first identified, Toxic Shock Syndrome seemed to occur almost exclusively in menstruating women who used extra-absorbent tampons. Increased awareness and product changes have significantly reduced the overall number of incidents of TSS related to tampon use, but they still account for half of all cases.[10]
    • TSS is caused by staph (usually) or strep bacteria that release toxins into the bloodstream and (in a small percentage of people) cause a major immune response with serious side effects. However, it is still not entirely clear why using extra-absorbent tampons that remain inserted for long periods of time is the greatest risk factor for TSS. Some theorize that the extended insertion period creates ideal conditions for bacteria growth, while others believe the tampon dries out over time and causes small cuts and abrasions when removed.[11][12]
    • Regardless of the cause, your best defenses against TSS as a menstruating female are to use pads instead of tampons whenever possible; use the least absorbent tampons necessary and change them regularly (every four to eight hours); store tampons in a cool, dry place that does not promote bacteria growth (so, not in the bathroom); and wash your hands before and after handling a tampon.[13]
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    Follow the recommendations for using certain types of female contraceptives. While they cause far fewer cases of TSS than tampons, vaginally-inserted female contraceptives of the sponge and diaphragm varieties must be used with care. As with tampons, the length of time in which the device remains inserted seems to be the key factor in the possibility of developing TSS.[14]
    • Basically, keep sponge or diaphragm-style contraceptives inserted for only as long as necessary, and never for more than twenty four hours. Also store them somewhere that doesn’t get warm and humid (and foster bacteria growth), and wash your hands before and after handling.[15]
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    Watch for other potential causes of TSS that can affect anyone. Women, and especially young women, comprise a significant majority of all cases of TSS, but it can affect male and female, young and old alike. If the staph or strep bacteria enters the body, the toxins are released, and the body’s immune system responds in “overdrive,” then any person can develop a serious case of Toxic Shock Syndrome.[16]
    • TSS can also occur when bacteria enter open wounds, after a woman gives birth, during a case of chickenpox, or when packing for a nosebleed is used for prolonged periods of time.
    • So, clean, bandage, and re-bandage wounds thoroughly and regularly; change nosebleed packing regularly or seek other methods to reduce or stop the nosebleeds; and be vigilant about following health and hygiene recommendations.
    • Young people are more likely to get TSS, and the best current theory as to why is that older people have built up a greater immunity. If you are a teen or young adult female, then, be especially vigilant against TSS.[17]


  • There were 814 confirmed cases of TSS in the U.S. connected to tampon use in 1980, and only three by 1998. However, even though the CDC no longer keeps track, tampon-related cases seem to have risen since then, most likely due to complacency. Do not take TSS lightly. It occurs rarely, and can usually be treated effectively, but it can also be deadly.[18]

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Categories: Tampons | Women’s Health