Just a few weeks ago, model Lauren Wasser told People that she may lose her second leg to Toxic Shock Syndrome (she did, yesterday,) after contracting the condition from a tampon in 2012. Wasser opened up, “When I see ads for tampons, it’s always a woman running on the beach or swimming in the ocean. There’s no warning whatsoever that A.) a tampon could kill you, or B.) you could lose limbs or forever be damaged by this product.” Wasser now spends her time spreading awareness under the hashtag #itsnotrareitsreal.
Toxic Shock Syndrome is something most girls learn about once when they first start their periods at 12 or 13. A mother, or a nurse figure, explains not to leave a tampon in too long, or you could get paralyzed. The conversation often ends there, striking fear into the person who also is only just beginning to understand their body.
Years later, women learn that not many people think too hard about TSS because it’s rare, therefore seems like a non-risk, “That’s not going to happen to me.” But, the fact of the matter is that, while rare, it can happen, and suddenly, to both women and men.
To further understand TSS and the stigma around women’s health, I caught up with Women’s Health Expert, and author of She-ology:The definitive guide To Women’s Intimate Health. Period., Dr. Sherry A. Ross.
Me: Toxic Shock Syndrome is women’s health issue that seems to receive confusing press. Some news outlets say not to worry, because it’s “so rare.” Some warn of its serious dangers. What’s the reality of TSS?
Dr. Sherry: Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is an extremely rare complication of a bacterial infection, caused by toxins produced by the Staph bacteria. Classically, the syndrome is thought to occur in menstruating women but can also affect men, children, and postmenopausal women. About 50% of the cases of TSS occur in menstruating women who use super-absorbent tampons. The other 50% occur in surgical and postpartum wound infections, such as mastitis, burns, sinusitis and skin lesions. In women, TSS is associated with using super-absorbent tampons and those wearing a diaphragm or contraceptive sponge.
A tip to consider If you’re menstruating: maybe throw your super-absorbent tampons away. Not everything has to be “super.”
Me: What symptoms are the “emergency, go to the hospital” symptoms?
Dr. Sherry: Symptoms of TSS can occur quickly and without warning. TSS can start out as a fever, a rash that looks like a “sunburn”, especially on the hands and feet, vomiting, muscle aches, headaches or diarrhea. The “sunburn” rash which appears on the palm of the hands and bottom of the feet is the hallmark skin change characteristic of TSS. TSS symptoms can progress to low blood pressure, ulcerations in mucous membranes such as your eyes, mouth and throat and ultimately cause difficulty breathing and death. Any of these symptoms should warrant a phone call to your health care provider or a trip to the emergency room.
Repeating so it sinks in: the “sunburn” rash which appears on the palm of the hands and bottom of the feet is the hallmark skin change characteristic of TSS.
Me: What’s the best way in your opinion to prevent it?
Dr. Sherry: There are steps you can take during your period to prevent TSS. Change tampons every 4 to 8 hours and menstrual cups every 12 hours. Using the lowest absorbency tampon will also minimize your risk. Alternating tampons, Thinx panties and sanitary napkins, especially when your blood flow is very light.
Me: In your opinion, why does stigma surround TSS and other women’s health issues? Why do you think so many women still don’t really know what’s going on with their bodies?
Dr. Sherry: Women have had a long history of not talking about their own women’s health issues. Feeling embarrassed and not acknowledging their vagina’s is the main problem. One study of 1,000 women showed 65% said they were uncomfortable saying the words “vagina” and “vulva”, and 40% used “code names” referring to their vaginas.
Women need to talk about their specific health care issues; issues often ignored and not dealt with. There are very few places where women feel comfortable talking about their vaginas without feeling judged, so at the very least, a doctor’s office should be a bastion of comfort. The inability to say the word “vagina” has been passed on in our culture from outdated attitudes, societal norms and misconceptions about the vagina and sex.
Aside from the fact that a little more than a third of all women are uncomfortable with the word vagina, a shocking 50% of women NEVER talk about their vaginal health with anyone, not even their doctor.
There are so many issues that women need to discuss about their healthcare that has nothing to do with pap smears, periods and yeast infections. Aside from the sensitive issues of painful sex, inability to have an orgasm, vaginal dryness with sex and vagina insecurity, there are the difficult subjects of depression, anxiety, and hormone imbalance.
I am counting on our younger generations of women to help lead the way and change the narrative on how we talk about our health, our bodies, and especially, our vaginas. Women need to take control of their bodies in every way. We cannot be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. We need to learn and explore the changes our bodies experience throughout our lifetime.
Dr. Sherry A. Ross’ book, She-ology: A Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health is a great place to start learning (and it has contributions from Reese Witherspoon, Brooke Shields, Christina Applegate + more of our feminine faves).
Dr. Sherry also suggests reading health blogs, finding a comfortable health care provider, challenging yourself and others to change the narrative on women’s healthcare, and most importantly feeling shameless about your body and vagina!
- Toxic Shock Syndrome is a rare complication of a bacterial staph infection.
- The toxins are found in super-absorbent tampons, diaphragms, and contraceptive sponges.
- TSS symptoms include: a “sunburn” rash that occurs on the palms of hands and soles of feet, vomiting, muscle aches, headaches or diarrhea. Also, low blood pressure, ulcerations in mucous membranes such as your eyes, mouth and throat and ultimately, can cause difficulty breathing and death.
- Change tampons every 4-8 hours; menstrual cups every 12 hours.
- Using the lowest absorbency tampon minimizes the risk.
- You should feel shameless about your body and vagina!
Toxic Shock Syndrome is rare, but also real. If just one person has learned anything about TSS that could help prevent a case in the future, then I’ve done my job here.