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The Truth about Tampons: Toxic Shock Syndrome Horror Stories

With the average woman using 12,000 during her lifetime, it’s no secret that tampons are beneficial, allowing freedom and confidence during that time of the month. However, everything comes with a price—are you aware of the risks that accompany the convenience? 

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare, often fatal condition that occurs as a complication of certain types of bacterial infections. TSS is most often the result of the toxins that are produced by Staphylococcus bacteria. Though TSS is not a female-only condition, it has been linked to tampon usage since the 1980s, when there was a large spike in toxic shock syndrome deaths due to tampons. While tampons alone aren’t enough to cause TSS (the person must already have staph bacteria present in his or her body), about 20% of the general population is a carrier of the bacteria. 

What does toxic shock look like and how do you recognize it?  

The symptoms of toxic shock will usually come on very suddenly. Often, you become so sick so fast that you don’t even realize what is happening until it’s too late. Many women who have experienced toxic shock report that it begins as simply feeling a little off, but it quickly progresses into dangerously high fevers, confusion, and hallucinations. It is commonly described as feeling “trapped” within your own body because you are unable to describe exactly how sick you feel to your family and friends, who initially perceive your external symptoms to be consistent with a simple viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. Many women going through toxic shock are not admitted to the hospital until they are already going into organ failure. 

To prevent this from happening, pay close attention to how you feel while you are using tampons. If you start to experience any strange symptoms that feel out of the ordinary for you, even minor ones, seek medical attention immediately. 

Does toxic shock really happen? 

In 1980 alone, 890 cases of toxic shock syndrome were reported, with over 90% of the cases caused as a direct result of tampon usage. However, today reports show that the incidence of toxic shock syndrome is low and stable, with a rate of 0.52 per 100,000 people. For women who use tampons regularly though, the incidence rates are significantly higher, at about 17 per 100,000 women. 

However, just because the odds are low does not mean that it is an impossibility. Just ask 24 year old model Lauren Wasser, who lost her leg after being hospitalized for toxic shock syndrome in October of 2012. Wasser is now suing Kotex, the company whose tampons she was using at the time. 

Many other women have shared their experiences with toxic shock through blogs and online forums. Michelle shares her story about nearly dying from toxic shock syndrome in June of 2007. She was hospitalized for nearly a month and spent over a year recovering from the effects of the disease on her limbs. Once a dancer, Michelle is still learning to adapt to the nerve damage in her feet and toes.

Blogger Molly Katchpole says that she was just a senior in high school when she experienced TSS after sleeping in her tampon in October of 2006. Molly’s body went into sepsis before she was taken to the hospital and spent months recovering from the emotional repercussions of living through toxic shock. 

But not all people are so lucky. In February of 2013, a 14 year old girl named Natasha Scott-Falber from the UK died from toxic shock syndrome after using her first tampon ever. The family has since launched an awareness campaign about toxic shock syndrome in honor of their daughter’s death. 

Is there any way to avoid toxic shock?  

While sometimes it seems that the occurrence of toxic shock is completely random, there are some things that can help to reduce your risk. Obviously, you could use sanitary napkins instead of tampons to eliminate your risk altogether. However, if you do use tampons, don’t use ones that are too large for your menstrual flow. Additionally, never leave a tampon in overnight, and make sure to change your tampons at least every four to six hours, even if they are not full. Additionally, be sure to wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon to keep bacteria from spreading. 

Last Updated: October 15, 2020