Toxic shock syndrome

This is a serious condition with 5% mortality, caused by a bacterium (germ) called staphylococcus. It was first described in 1978.

Approximately half of all cases occur in menstruating women aged between 15-25 and who use tampons. The link between tampon use and the infection is still not absolutely clear. Other cases occur from burns, cuts or other localised infections.

This condition starts suddenly, with the person (usually young) becoming rapidly unwell. Initial symptoms may resemble flu with a high temperature, headache, sore throat, muscle pains, vomiting and watery diarrhoea. There may be drowsiness and confusion

A generalised rash, which can look like sunburn, develops in the first 24 hours and the eyes may be bloodshot with redness underneath the eyelids. The mouth and vagina may have the same appearance.

Hospital admission for intravenous antibiotics and intensive support is essential.

There is an association between the use of high absorbency tampons and toxic shock syndrome. Avoiding tampons, or alternating with sanitary towels can reduce the risk. It is better to use tampons that are less absorbent and to change them frequently. If possible, wear a sanitary towel at night rather than use a tampon.

Store your tampons away from heat and moisture ie not in the bathroom, as this can encourage the growth of bacteria. The staphylococcus germ lives on the skin, so make sure you wash your hands well before inserting a tampon.

Further information

Toxic shock syndrome information service

This article published on
12 December 2005

Next review date 12/1/2013


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