Though most people associate toxic shock syndrome (TSS) with the use of tampons, women, men, and children of any age can contract the illness. A particular bacteria in the strep and staph family releases poison into the body, causing TSS. It is possible to avoid contracting the condition, in most cases, through proper hygiene. Sometimes toxic shock syndrome develops in people following surgery, so mindful recovery is vital.

What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome comes on suddenly and can be fatal if left untreated. The condition is rare, can be difficult to diagnose, and is most commonly associated with super-absorbent tampons. This association resulted in the removal of several types from store shelves in recent years. This action has reduced occurrences of TSS, though it has certainly not eradicated the infection.

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What Causes Toxic Shock Syndrome

One of two bacteria with which many people are familiar cause toxic shock syndrome: staph and strep. Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria often exists in hospital settings and inside some menstruating women. This bacteria releases toxins inside the body that can lead to toxic shock. More rarely, A streptococcus (strep) bacteria causes TSS. The toxins cause severe symptoms such as extreme drops in blood pressure, which can lead organs to shut down.

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Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome include low blood pressure and a sudden high fever. It can also cause diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, and muscle aches. Confusion is common, as is a sunburn-like rash that is particularly significant if found on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Redness of eyes, throat, and nose may occur, as may seizures. Anyone with any of these symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible, as this is a fast-acting condition.

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Who is at Risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome?

Menstruating women are at the highest risk for toxic shock syndrome, but this does not mean other people cannot contract the infection. Aside from women who use tampons, toxic shock can afflict women who use diaphragms, cervical caps, and menstrual sponges. Giving birth also puts one at a higher risk for toxic shock syndrome, due to staph's prevalence in hospitals. Toxic shock can also affect males and females who have recently had surgery, an open wound or burn, or a prosthetic limb.

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Alarming Statistics

More than 33 percent of all cases of toxic shock syndrome occur in women under 19 years old. Nearly 30 percent of these young women will get the illness again. For this reason, it is imperative that everyone (women especially) learn to recognize the symptoms of toxic shock. Early diagnosis is the only way to ensure that the condition does not result in lifelong debilitation or even death.

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Why is Toxic Shock Syndrome So Fatal?

The progression of toxic shock syndrome is quick, and people often ignore symptoms for too long. Fatalities occur because, when the body comes into contact with the toxins released by the staph bacteria, it goes into hypotensive shock, which leads to the heart and lungs ceasing to function. Vomiting and high fever are often the first symptoms of toxic shock.

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Staph and the Vagina

The staph bacterium is often present but harmless in the vagina. Doctors and researchers are not yet certain of how this organism causes toxic shock syndrome. It is clear, though, the bacteria need a certain environment to reproduce and release their toxins. A blood-saturated, polyester foam tampon is the perfect place for this to happen. The bacteria also need a way to enter the bloodstream, to transmit the illness. This can happen when a woman makes microscopic tears in her vagina when she is inserting a tampon. A dry vagina (a common issue if a woman is using a super-absorbent tampon for longer than the recommended amount of time) makes tearing more likely, as well.

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Other Causes of Toxic Shock Syndrome

Menstrual sponges, cervical caps, diaphragms and other devices inserted into the vagina can make toxic shock syndrome more likely. In most of these cases, the device is left inside the body for much longer than it should be: more than 30 hours, for instance. This often happens when a woman forgets to remove the device. When it comes to sponges, however, sometimes the infection is impossible to prevent; when the woman removes the sponge, pieces of it may be left behind, giving the bacteria ample opportunity to reproduce.

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Complications of Toxic Shock Syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome, as mentioned before, moves quickly and can run into complications within hours. Some of these complications include renal failure, shock, and death. In the case of such serious complications, only immediate medical attention can prevent these results. If a woman suspects she may have toxic shock syndrome, she should remove any tampon or other devices from the vagina immediately, and call a doctor right away. It is also important to remember that tampon use is not the only cause.

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How to Prevent Toxic Shock Syndrome

Much of the risk of toxic shock syndrome is gone, as many tampon manufacturers have stopped producing tampons with problematic materials. When using tampons, one should use the one with the lowest absorbency possible. Changing tampons frequently is a must: every four to eight hours. Switching between tampons and maxi pads is a good way to stay healthy, as well. Do not use a tampon when your period flow is very light, as this can lead to unnecessary dryness in the vagina.

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