Toxic Shock Syndrome, also known as TSS, is severe circulatory and organ failure caused by bacterial toxins, generally from the Staphylococcus group. Anyone can get TSS, and it can be brought on by surgery, accidental injury, and even childbirth.
Even though this syndrome is extremely rare, women who use tampons during menstruation are more at risk than those who do not. In fact, most tampons sold on the market today come with a warning about TSS and directions for minimizing your risk of contracting it.
Scientists at Medical University Vienna’s Department of Clinical Pharmacology have, however, recently developed the world’s first vaccine designed to prevent this potentially lethal infection from occurring. Although the research is still ongoing, Professor Martha Eibl, director of Biomeizinische Forschungsgesellscaft mbH, who has collaborated on the development of the vaccine. has warned it could be years before this shot becomes commercially available.
TSS was first described in medical literature in the 1980s after an outbreak infected about 700 women following the release of a new super-absorbent line of tampons. The condition soon became known as the “tampon disease,” and this surge in the generally rare condition led to the regulation of tampons. Tampon packing now specifically states the amount of time they can remain within the body.
Staphylococci bacteria are present in almost everyone. Usually found on the skin and the mucous membranes, they are totally harmless to most people, but some are less fortunate. As Professor Eibl explains, “For people with weakened immune systems, they can cause serious diseases such as toxic shock syndrome.” The chronically ill, people on dialysis, and those recovering from heart surgery are particularly at risk. Dr. Bernd Jilma from MedUni Vienna, however, says the condition is very common among women, noting that “in 50 percent of cases the disease is associated with menstruation in young women.”
The vaccine has been found to be safe and effective against the disease and has been successfully tested in a phase 1 trial. These results were recently published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Tests on 46 young men and women showed almost zero side effects. The vaccine, developed from the detoxified Staphylococcus toxin, is injected into the skin, and according to Dr. Jilma, the effect is similar to that of the tetanus vaccination, with immunization lasting for five years or more.
Keep in mind, the incidence of menstruation associated with TSS is 0.69/100,000. When not associated with menstruation, it decreases to 0.32/100,000. So it’s very rare (low probability, high consequence), but menstruation does double the risk.
As with any vaccine, however, there are health risks to consider. Some people react negatively to vaccines, and this can lead to brain damage, disability, and even death. When contemplating a new vaccine, it is essential to weigh these risks against the likelihood of your contracting the disease.
It is true that some people have died from TSS and others made seriously ill, but these are rare cases. And if the majority of people contracting this illness are menstruating women, then there are certainly some effective precautions this demographic can take to lower their risk of developing TSS.
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How To Lower Your Risk Of Developing TSS
The single most effective way to drastically reduce your chances of contracting TSS from menstrual related instances is to stop using tampons altogether. I can hear the gasps coming from some women already, but I assure you, there are some amazing alternatives available. Of course there are the obvious pads, but if pads just aren’t for you, you may want to consider a menstrual cup.
There are many benefits to a menstrual cup, including not having to carry around tampons, being able to insert it for up to 12 hours before your expected period, only having to empty and clean it every 12 hours, being able to track and measure your flow, and not subjecting your vagina – and body — to the harmful chemicals used in the process of tampon manufacturing. There have still been several cases of TSS reported from menstrual cup usage, but considering high-absorbency tampons are considered a greater risk for TSS, it makes sense that a menstrual cup would have a significantly lower risk. To learn more about the menstrual cup, see: Still Using Tampons And Pads? You Should Read This.
If the menstrual cup isn’t for you, however, you still have other options. You can use store-bought disposable pads (though if you’re anything like me, you don’t enjoy their uncomfortable, bulky feeling, not to mention the volume of waste they produce). There are also fantastic and slim reusable pad options, such as “lunapads” or “thinx” underwear.
But if you love tampons and can’t imagine ever switching to something else, it’s in your best interest to follow these simple steps to reduce your risk of developing TSS.
- Do not put a tampon in before your period begins
- Select the ones with the lowest absorbency that can handle your flow
- Do not leave a tampon in longer than 6 hours
Ultimately the decision is yours. All you can do is educate yourself, consider the risks, and make an informed choice.
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