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Toxic Shock Syndrome



Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a group of symptoms throughout the body. This illness can progress rapidly. It can lead to a failure of multiple body systems. Toxic shock syndrome can be fatal.

There are 2 types of TSS:

  • Menstrual type —associated with menstruation and tampon use
  • Non-menstrual type—can occur in men, women, and children

Causes    TOP

TSS is caused by toxins released from specific bacteria.

Bacteria infects the body through cuts or sores. The bacteria can create toxins as it grows. These toxins are harmful to many of your body's systems. The damage to your body is what causes the range of symptoms.

Immune System

Immune system white blood cell
The immune system creates antibodies to fight bacteria.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

TSS was originally associated with tampon use. It was common in women who used a particular type of highly absorbent tampons. As a result, these tampons were removed from the market. The number of TSS infections due to tampons has since significantly decreased.

Risk Factors    TOP

Factors that increase your risk of TSS include:

  • Tampon use
  • Birth control devices placed in the vagina
  • Chickenpox
  • Skin lesions such as burns
  • Wound packing—done after certain surgeries or procedures such as sinus or nasal surgery
  • Surgical wounds
  • Recent childbirth
  • Alcohol abuse
  • HIV infection

Symptoms    TOP

A person with TSS often appears very ill. Symptoms usually come on suddenly. Fever, chills, and body aches may start up to 4 days before other symptoms develop such as:

  • Fever of 102ºF (39ºC) or greater
  • Sunburn-like rash
  • Lightheadedness
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sore throat
  • Red eyes
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Sleepiness
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Vaginal discharge that may be watery or bloody
  • Swelling in the face and eyelids
  • Skin peeling off, especially palms of hands and soles of feet

Symptoms of severe TSS include:

  • Fainting, severe lightheadedness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Fluid retention

The infection can lead to severe complications such as:

  • Kidney failure—little or no urine production
  • Gangrene
  • Pancreatitis
  • Heart problems
  • Liver failure
  • Low platelet count

Diagnosis    TOP

A physical and pelvic exam will be done. The diagnosis is most often based on fever, rash, low blood pressure, and problems affecting multiple body systems.

Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Biopsy

Treatment    TOP

The goal of treatment is to support life and reverse the process of organ decline. You may need to be monitored in the intensive care unit.

Treatment includes:

Cleaning and Draining the Infection Site

The wound will be opened. Sterile saline will be poured over the wound to clean the area. Any packing from a previous procedure will be removed.

If a birth control device is in the vagina, it will be taken out. If the TSS is menstrual type, the vagina may be flushed with saline.

Supportive Care

To support your body while you heal:

  • IV fluids will be given to replace lost fluids.
  • Your breathing may need to be supported by mechanical ventilation. It may be needed if your lungs are affected or you are too tired to breathe well on your own.
  • Dialysis may be needed with kidney failure. Dialysis takes over the job of the kidneys.
  • Medication may be given to:
    • Raise blood pressure
    • Lower fever
  • Antibiotics may be given. They do not cure TSS but can help to manage the condition.
  • IV immunoglobulin may be given to support the immune system.

Prevention    TOP

You can decrease your risk of menstrual-associated TSS with the following steps:

  • Do not use tampons continuously when menstruating.
  • Alternate using a tampon with a sanitary pad.
  • Switch to sanitary pads at night.
  • Do not use super absorbency tampons.
  • Change tampons frequently during the day.
  • Store tampons in a clean, dry place.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before and after you put in or take out a tampon.
  • Use a lower absorbency tampon if you find the tampon is irritating or hard to pull out.
  • Use tampons only during menstruation.
  • Seek medical care for infected wounds.
  • If you have had TSS, do not use tampons or place birth control devices in your vagina.

Most other forms of the disease are not currently preventable.


American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters


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Updated March 20, 2013. Accessed January 22, 2015.
Toxic shock syndrome. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at:
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Updated June 2014. Accessed January 22, 2015.
Tyner HL, Schlievert PM, Baddour LM. Beta-hemolytic streptococcal erythroderma syndrome: a clinical and pathogenic analysis. Am J Med Sci. 2011;342(4):343-344.
Last reviewed February 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD
Last Updated: 6/20/2014

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