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
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.
The immune system creates antibodies to fight bacteria.
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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 related to tampons has since significantly decreased.
Factors that may increase the chances of TSS:
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. These may include:
- Fever of 102ºF (39ºC) or greater
- Sunburn-like rash
- Abdominal pain
- Sore throat
- Red eyes
- 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
- Fluid retention
The infection can lead to severe complications such as:
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
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.
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.
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.
To help reduce the chances of menstrual-associated TSS:
- 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.
There are no current guidelines to prevent most other forms of the disease.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters—Women's College Hospital
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Toxic shock syndrome. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/toxic-shock.html. Accessed January 29, 2021.
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Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 1/29/2021