Chances are, you trash the Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) pamphlet that comes in every tampon box. (It warns that tampon use can aggravate the life-threatening condition whereby bacteria spreads toxins throughout the body, which can result in organ failure.)
Even model Lauren Wasser, 27, who contracted TSS three years ago, and lost half a leg and all her toes from complications, once disregarded those warnings: "I honestly thought TSS was a myth — something that was only spoken about in the 80s," Wasser said in an email to Cosmopolitan.com.
Wasser told Vice she'd been using tampons correctly (replacing them every few hours) before she started to feel off. Not long after, a friend found her passed out with a 107-degree fever, her internal organs shutting down after the otherwise healthy Wasser suffered a heart attack. The event landed her in the hospital, where she developed gangrene, dead tissue caused by lack of blood flow in the legs.
"The pain was unreal — I felt a burning sensation as though my feet were set on fire," Wasser told Cosmopolitan.com. "Over time, my feet slowly started to mummify, and I never wanted to look at them. I always made sure that they were always covered," she continues.
Without much of a choice, Wasser authorized the amputation of her right leg below the knee. She also lost her left toes and still suffers from persistent foot pain three years later.
The model's doctors say she may require an additional amputation around age 50, but she's lucky she didn't lose her life.
"When you loose [sic] a limb, you realize how important life is to you, but it's also a struggle because you feel like the life you had before will never be the same," Wasser wrote. "All of the sudden, I didn't have a leg — and I was a model. I had to find myself and love myself again."
Now that Wasser has contracted TSS once, she's steering clear of tampons altogether — and suing Kimberly-Clark Corporation (the company that makes the Kotex Natural Balance tampons she used when she came down with TSS) as well as the grocery stores that supplied her with the tampons, reports Vice.
But that doesn't mean you should freak out about the dangers of your own tampon use or commit to bleeding freely. There's a reason why everyone and their mom uses tampons, and yet you don't hear about TSS tragedies on the regular. Only 1 or 2 out of every 100,000 women get TSS, says Owen Montgomery, M.D., chairman of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and spokesperson for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
That's because it takes a perfect storm to contract TSS: You'd need to be one of the small percentage of women who has Staphylococcus aureus in your regular vaginal flora. You'd also have to have to lack the protein that protects you from this bacteria — a genetic predisposition that may make Caucasian women slightly more prone to TSS, Dr. Montgomery explains. Lastly, you'd have to have your period and leave a tampon in for way too long, which creates a welcoming environment for bacteria to flourish. Then, and only then, that bacteria may release enough toxic byproduct to upset your system and spark high fever; red, flaky skin; rashes; muscle aches; or dizziness — the first symptoms of TSS.
Even then, you'd have to ignore these symptoms for days to get as sick as Wasser, Dr. Montgomery explains. At that point, you might experience multi-organ failure and drainage issues in your legs and arms, which is what led to Wasser's amputation.
Without treatment, TSS could ultimately lead to death. But it only kills about 4 to 5 percent of patients who contract it, Dr. Mongomery adds.
In summary: It's extremely unlikely that TSS will kill the average tampon user — or cost you your legs. (And FWIW: Even non-tampon users can contract TSS if bacteria enters the body through an open wound like a bug bite or cut, or something more serious like a surgical site or childbirth.)
Still, a little caution can go a long way to reduce the small risk of TSS among women who use tampons:
- Use a tampon with the lowest possible absorbency for your flow. "New tampons are less absorbent by design so women don't leave them in as long," Dr. Montgomery says, citing uber-absorbent tampons manufactured in the '80s, when experts linked tampon use to TSS.
- Change your tampon religiously. The rule is every four to eight hours — or even more frequently. When you leave it in for too long, generally harmless bacteria can grow into bigger problems.
- Alternate between wearing tampons and pads. This instruction is written right on the TSS pamphlet you discard every month. If you sleep longer than eight hours, a pad could be a good idea.
- Look out for signs of TSS. While your period might bring about flu-like symptoms (like muscle aches), take your tampon out ASAP and call your doctor if you develop out-of-the-ordinary or multiple symptoms (like a sudden 102-plus-degree fever, dizziness, diarrhea, or a rash that resembles sunburn) while wearing a tampon.
- Ask your doctor before using tampons if you've ever suffered from TSS symptoms. It could be recurring in people who are prone to it.
- Avoid other common tampon mistakes. It could seriously save your life.
Additional reporting b
y Tess Koman.