Women’s Health A-Z

Toxic Shock Syndrome

What is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare, serious and potentially life-threatening illness.  The cause is a certain type of bacterial infection, usually Staphylococcus Aureus (staph), but sometimes Group A Streptococcus (strep). These bacteria produce toxins that are released into the bloodstream, causing over-stimulation of the immune system and severe symptoms. Toxic shock syndrome can affect women, men or children.

Tampon use and other risk factors

Toxic shock syndrome in women is often associated with tampon use, although not all cases are caused by wearing tampons. Leaving a tampon in too long can be a risk factor of TSS. Super-absorbent tampons can be risky because they are designed to be worn longer with less leakage, so women can forget to remove them. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women change their tampons every 4-8 hours.

Other sources of the infection could be surgical wounds, childbirth or any other open wounds.

Symptoms of toxic shock syndrome

  • Fever greater than 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius)
  • A rash that looks like a sunburn, often on palms or soles but can cover most of the body
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle aches/body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat or cough
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Confusion or disorientation

When to see your doctor

Women who are experiencing a fever as well as a rash or other symptoms should call their doctor or go to the emergency room. They should not drive if experiencing light-headedness or disorientation. If a woman is menstruating and wearing a tampon when experiencing these symptoms, she should remove the tampon immediately before going to the doctor/hospital.