“But I thought TSS was from my mom’s generation.” “Didn’t it die out in the 80s?” “The booklets in our tampon boxes feel like a lot of FDA hype.”
If it feels like toxic shock syndrome has disappeared, perhaps it’s because the Centers for Disease Control stopped tracking it back in 1986, meaning it’s up to us to self-report when we get sick from tampon use.
But most of us don’t because the early symptoms of TSS are eerily similar to normal period symptoms.
We Have No Idea That We're Still Getting TSS
It’s a common mistake to accidentally “double up” or leave a tampon in for longer than we should. Even my mom admitted to me that she’s done it.
If stories of over-worn tampons aren’t that surprising, why is it so shocking that we’re still getting sick (or worse) from TSS?
This week a story of the near-death experience of 15-year-old Rylie Whitten from Michigan broke, and again social media feeds went abuzz with news about toxic shock syndrome. Her case of TSS was linked to tampon usage.
And model Lauren Wasser’s story made international headlines last summer when she lost her leg due to TSS caused by a tampon.
Last week TSS became personal. My 25-year-old sister reached out to tell me her terrifying story:
I woke up in the middle of the night to change my tampon, and half-asleep, forgot I already had one in. I inserted a second tampon. A few days later, I was extremely sick with sharp abdominal pain, dizziness and I couldn’t think clearly. When I finally went to the doctor, I discovered that I still had a week-old tampon in. I’m so careful; I never thought this would happen to me.
We Don’t Know What It Is
The symptoms of TSS include high fever, bloating, rash, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea, confusion, low blood pressure, multiple organ failure and death.
Hang on — bloating, muscle aches and diarrhea are a normal part of my period. So, it seems like any of us could have had low-levels of these symptoms and chalked it up to normalcy of our cycle when, in fact, something was very wrong.
Four Surprising Facts About TSS
- It’s caused by naturally occurring staph bacteria (the same kind that causes strep).
- 20% of humans carry this bacteria on our skin, and an even higher percentage of us carry it in our nose.
- At low levels, this bacteria doesn’t cause significant harm to us, but tampons create an environment where it can thrive: warm, dark and moist (like a vagina).
- All tampons (including “all natural”) can exacerbate the risk for TSS because bacteria grow in organic materials, like the cotton found in the tampon that’s in your vagina right now.
We Assume Natural Tampons are Protecting Us
“There’s no medical data that would support the use of organic tampons or pads.” — Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, an ob-gyn at NYU Langone Medical Center, NY Daily News
Headlines about TSS and the rise in the popularity in organic personal care products have led to an increased demand for 100% cotton and organic tampons. This is evidenced by the number of all-natural and organic brands and startups that were introduced in the U.S. last year.
Making claims in the media that imply natural tampons are safer —or can’t cause TSS —is irresponsible and dangerous since these claims are not supported by any scientific evidence or endorsed by the FDA.
New York Magazine said it best:
“While it’s true that there are no studies of long-term tampon use, there’s also no medical data suggesting women should use organic products instead. Rumors that tampons contain harmful chemicals like asbestos and dioxin (a controversial rayon-bleaching byproduct that’s been linked to hormonal changes) are indeed rumors. Tampons are considered class II medical devicessubject to FDA oversight and manufacturers use a newer rayon-bleaching process that results in only trace amounts of dioxin. As far as the risk for toxic shock syndrome (TSS) goes, natural fibers aren’t any safer than synthetic. The Honest Company’s product description says its tampons don’t contain ‘synthetic super absorbents,’ yet the super absorbent materials associated with a flurry of TSS cases in 1980 aren’t used in any tampons in the United States, thanks to the FDA and the CDC.”
A Note from the Author:
As an aside, if you feel better about buying all-natural or organic tampons, do what makes you feel good, but know your facts. All-natural and organic aren’t always synonymous with safer.
And if the thought of any chemicals inside of your vagina makes you cringe, it’s worth noting that there are still thousands of chemicals and pesticides that remain in agricultural products (like cotton) that are certified “organic” in the U.S. (Here’s a full list).
The FDA guidelines for all tampons include wearing the lowest-possible absorbency, avoiding tampons overnight, and changing every 4 to 8 hours.