Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a very rare but potentially fatal illness caused by a bacterial toxin. Different bacterial toxins may cause toxic shock syndrome, depending on the situation. The causative bacteria include ''Staphylococcus aureus'' and ''Streptococcus pyogenes''. Streptococcal TSS is sometimes referred to as toxic shock-like syndrome (TSLS) or Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (STSS).
TSS can occur via the skin (e.g., cuts, surgery, burns), vagina (prolonged tampon exposure), or pharynx. However, most of the large number of individuals who are exposed to or colonized with toxin-producing strains of ''S. aureus'' or ''S. pyogenes'' do not develop toxic shock syndrome. One reason is that a large percentage of the population have protective antibodies against the toxins that cause TSS. It is not clear why the antibodies are present in people who have never had the disease, but likely that given these bacteria's pervasiveness and presence in normal flora, minor cuts and such allow natural immunization on a large scale.
It is believed that approximately half the cases of staphylococcal TSS reported today are associated with tampon use during menstruation. However, TSS can also occur in children, men, and non-menstruating women.
Although scientists have recognized an association between TSS and tampon use, no firm causal link has been established. Research conducted by the CDC suggested that use of some high-absorbency tampons increased the risk of TSS in menstruating blah. A few specific tampon designs and high-absorbency tampon materials were found to have some association with increased risk of TSS. These products and materials are no longer used in tampons sold in the U.S. (The materials include polyester, carboxymethylcellulose and polyacrylate).
Tampons made with rayon do not appear to have a higher risk of TSS than cotton tampons of similar absorbency.
Toxin production by ''S. aureus'' requires a protein-rich environment, which is provided by the flow of menstrual blood, a neutral vaginal pH, which occurs during menstruation, and elevated oxygen levels, which are provided by the tampon that is inserted into the normally anaerobic vaginal environment. Although ulcerations have been reported in women using super-absorbent tampons, the link to menstrual TSS, if any, is unclear. The toxin implicated in menstrual TSS is capable of entering the bloodstream by crossing the vaginal wall in the absence of ulcerations. Women can avoid the risk of contracting TSS by choosing a tampon with the minimum absorbency needed to manage their menstrual flow and using tampons only during active menstruation. Alternately, a woman may choose to use a different kind of menstrual product that may eliminate or reduce the risk of TSS, such as a menstrual cup or sanitary napkin.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011