What Causes TSS?

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Author Name: Mia Barnes
Date: Thursday March 28, 2019

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When people first hear about TSS, it can easily frighten them. Especially for young girls starting menstruation, the disease can tempt many to steer clear of tampons and fret about their periods. But what causes TSS?

Many assumptions and rumors about toxic shock syndrome leave people with misunderstandings about the causes of the condition. Horror stories about TSS provoke fear, but understanding the disease promotes safety. This rare condition is unnerving because it can cause death, but mindful precautions can significantly reduce the risk of toxic shock syndrome. The following breakdown of the facts can sort out the true causes of TSS.

What Is TSS?

TSS, or toxic shock syndrome, is a bacterial infection that appears without warning and can be life-threatening. Due to the discharge of poisonous material from Staphylococcus aureus or pyogenes, women’s bodies experience an extreme change in blood pressure.

As the poison enters the bloodstream and blood pressure plummets, the oxygen flow is cut off from crucial organs — which can prove fatal. Commonly, hypotensive shock in TSS leads to the failure of the heart and lungs.

What Causes TSS?

The strain of staph bacteria that leads to TSS naturally exists in the vagina, but it only becomes dangerous when the biological environment incites a reaction. Prolonged use of a tampon is what causes TSS typically, as it can set the stage for this bacteria response. The act of inserting a tampon can produce tiny rips to the sides of the vagina. These tears can break blood vessels, exposing the bloodstream to the staph bacteria. As the vagina dries out, it can be compromised and vulnerable to infection.

Tampons made from polyester foam are also linked to a higher chance of developing TSS. Structurally, these fibers can alter the airflow in the vagina. However, tampons aren’t the root of the problem in TSS — they’re just one possible complication.

Who Is at Risk for TSS?

Anyone can get toxic shock syndrome, but most frequently, menstruating women develop it. Over one-third of all TSS cases occur in women under 19. Although the average age for TSS is in a younger bracket, age isn’t a restrictive characteristic of TSS cases. It’s also prevalent for the problem to arise again for women who have had toxic shock syndrome before.

New mothers also have a higher likelihood of developing TSS. During pregnancy and after giving birth, the reproductive system is more accessible for invasive substances like staph. When conception opens the pathway for this kind of bacteria, women can quickly see symptoms of toxic shock syndrome.

Initially, researchers didn’t associate TSS with menstruating women. The first study in 1978 examined children with abnormal staph infections, and the children encountered fevers, headaches, rashes and vomiting. It’s unlikely for children to get toxic shock syndrome, but it is possible.

While women have a higher risk for TSS, men can also succumb to the infection. Non-menstrual cases are sporadic, and what causes TSS in men is similar but still a bit different than what causes TSS in women. Several factors can increase the risk of TSS for males. Recent surgery, surface level lacerations on the skin and viral infections all are risk factors that can put people of any gender in jeopardy.

What About Menstrual Cups, Diaphragms and Cervical Caps?

Other devices present in the vagina for an extended period of time, like diaphragms, cervical caps and menstrual cups or sponges, can create hazards, too. Problems from period inhibiting devices pose as much risk as tampons in this case. Products that soak up blood and remain in the vagina interfere with the natural environment of a reproductive system, opening up the possibility of TSS.

Symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome

Because the symptoms rapidly appear and present immediate hazards, concerned individuals should visit their doctor. Receiving treatment in time often leads to a full recovery. In the early stages, antibiotics can fight the poisonous materials in the body. Watch out for the following symptoms to catch TSS before it does serious damage:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rashes, especially on the soft part of hands and feet
  • Achey muscles
  • Seizures

How to Prevent TSS?

Performing consistent menstrual hygiene practices can lower the risk of bacterial infection and keep women comfortable during their periods. Opting for lower absorbency tampons made from safe ingredients is also an extra precaution women can take. Cotton and rayon are better materials that can avert some of the risk for TSS. Most importantly, don’t leave tampons in for over eight hours. Switching out tampons and cleaning vaginal devices on a regular basis can prevent the growth and release of toxins.

If you ever wondered what causes TSS, hopefully we’ve answered your questions as far as what causes it and what you can do to avoid it. While toxic shock syndrome comes on suddenly, people can follow careful hygiene practices to lower the potential for TSS. Manage reproductive health with conscious habits and don’t hesitate to call a physician with concerns.

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