Let’s talk toxic shock syndrome

Photo credit: Laker.

Photo credit: Laker.

Most students are aware that leaving a tampon in for over eight hours might lead to contracting a disease, but confusion lies in the details. Despite Urban’s thorough health curriculum, there are still gaps in knowledge about what happens when a tampon is left in for too long. The cultural stigmatization and spread of false information surrounding menstruation can create uncertainty among teenagers.

This potentially fatal illness is called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a bacterial infection that can release toxins into the bloodstream, causing harm to the body and its organs. Over 40 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Report announced TSS to be a national health problem. A few months later, they announced TSS’s link to ultra-absorbent tampons. In 1980, 38 out of 772 menstrual-related TSS cases reported were fatal. Synthetic materials in ultra-absorbent tampons created the ideal environment inside the uterus for the TSS bacteria to grow. Today, ultra-absorbent tampons like these have been removed from the market and are illegal. 

Being born after the TSS shock in the ‘80s can contribute to the lack of knowledge about the illness among teenagers today. Inaccurate perceptions about the illness allows exaggerated rumors to form. This misinformation can lead to spreading panic around the community. “I hear so many horror stories of people leaving a tampon in too long or forgetting that [they already] had one [in] and putting another one in,” said Annika Eriksson ‘25 in an interview with The Urban Legend. “That just always freaked me out.”

In an effort to ensure menstrual safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires adherence to strict regulations before period companies are permitted to place their tampons on shelves. “Manufacturers submit data including the results of testing to evaluate the safety of the materials used to make tampons and applicators; tampon absorbency, strength and integrity,” wrote the FDA. “And, whether tampons enhance the growth of certain harmful bacteria or change normal bacteria levels in the vagina.”

FDA regulations have greatly lowered the chances of contracting TSS. CNN Health Writer Kate Morgan said, “[TSS is] incredibly rare, affecting less than one out of every 100,000 people in the United States. And if you use your tampons properly, your risk of developing TSS is no higher than that of a man who’s never had a period or used a tampon to staunch anything other than a bad nosebleed.”

In addition, the FDA also urges menstruators to recognize the heaviness of their flow to assist them in choosing the appropriate absorbency level for their tampon. “The advisability of using tampons with the minimum absorbency needed to control menstrual flow [is required] in order to reduce the risk of contracting TSS,” stated the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.

With all of this information menstrual product packaging provides, it is crucial to read the information on packaging to know what the body needs. Health Educator Shafia Zaloom said, “I think part of [the TSS knowledge gap] is that young people don’t take the time to read directions and things like that anymore. The warning labels on products are important to read, and I don’t feel people necessarily pay attention to them.”

Ultimately, the most effective preparation is thorough knowledge on what your body requires before using any medical device internally. “That’s why in Sex Ed class … we tell people, ‘You need to read the directions actually, you’re not supposed to look things up online because we want people to actually do that,’” said Zaloom. “That’s a good, healthy practice.”