Toxic shock syndrome symptoms: What you need to know

Toxic shock syndrome symptoms are something that every woman should be aware of.

Although the illness, which is a life-threatening condition caused by bacteria getting into the body, can be experienced by anyone, it’s most commonly associated with the wearing of tampons for longer than the recommended amount of time.

This is why warnings about toxic shock are mostly directed at women rather than men or children – and they’re certainly something we should all be taking heed of.

If you’re a tampon user, there’s no need to panic – as long as you use them safely, it’s unlikely that you’ll be affected. However, if left untreated, toxic shock syndrome can be fatal, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms so that you can recognise it in yourself or others.

What is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome (often abbreviated to TSS) is caused by either Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria. These bacteria can live harmlessly on the surface of your body, but if they manage to go any deeper, they can release toxins that damage tissue and stop organs working.

In addition to using tampons, other common occurrences such as using a diaphragm, getting a cut, burn or boil or going through childbirth can also increase your risk of developing TSS.

What are the symptoms of toxic shock syndrome?

The NHS lists the most common toxic shock syndrome symptoms as the following:

  • A high temperature (fever) of 39C (102.2F) or above
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, chills, muscle aches, a sore throat and a cough feeling and being sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • A widespread sunburn-like rash
  • The whites of the eyes, lips and tongue turning a bright red
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • ‘Most of the symptoms associated with TSS are relatively common. This means it’s easy to miss the warning signs, as in the early stages you may just think you have the flu, or you’ve eaten something funny,’ Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at Push Doctor, explains.

    ‘It’s important to stress that TSS is a rare condition, so in most cases, it’s likely that you will simply be suffering from a condition such as flu or an upset stomach.’

    ‘However, while TSS is rare, it certainly never hurts to discuss your symptoms with a doctor if you’re concerned.’

    Toxic shock syndrome is considered to be a medical emergency, so don’t be embarrassed or dismiss your symptoms – it’s important to ask for help.

    How is toxic shock syndrome treated?

    ‘TSS is a serious condition that progress very quickly, so you’re probably looking at a stay in hospital, perhaps even intensive care,’ says Adam. ‘The exact treatment will depend how far the illness has progressed, but you can expect to be given a course of antibiotics and plenty of fluids to help prevent any organ damage.’

    In some cases, you may also be given pooled immunoglobulin (purified antibodies taken out of donated blood from many people) to fight the infection, or dialysis if your kidneys have stopped functioning.

    In very extreme circumstances, you may need surgery to remove any dead tissue that the infection has destroyed.

    How can you lower your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome?

    ‘Poor tampon hygiene is the most notorious cause of TSS, so make sure you change it as often as you’re instructed to on the packaging,’ Adam advises. ‘Never use more than one at a time and make sure you remove it at the end of your period. You should also put a new one in before you go to bed and take it out when you wake up.’

    You should also wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon, and use the lowest absorbency suitable for your needs so that you’re reminded to keep changing your protection.

    ‘If you’re concerned about tampons being left in too long, you may wish to try alternative products such as panty liners or sanitary towels,’ he adds.

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    Even if you’re not using sanitary products, it’s important to be aware of toxic shock syndrome symptoms and look out for any telltale signs.

    It is advised that you follow manufacturers instructions on any female barrier contraception, and treat wounds and burns quickly, seeking medical advice if you develop signs of an infection, such as swelling, redness and increasing pain.