Toxic Shock Syndrome is a medical condition with a scary name. But what exactly is it? This syndrome entered public consciousness with the popularity of tampons in the 1980s, as it affected 90% of menstruating women when they swapped over to using these hygiene products for the convenience they offer. Read on to see how science explains what happens to your body from Toxic Shock Syndrome and what you can do to prevent it!

“The two things that should alert patients and physicians are a very high fever and a sudden drop in blood pressure, which could cause fainting spells…” – Dr. Anthony Chow

Here’s How Science Explains What Happens to Your Body From TSS

What is it?

Let’s get this out of the way – the reason Toxic Shock Syndrome gained the notoriety it did is because of how potentially fatal it is. It made headlines during the 1970s and 1980s after tampon makers experimented with super-absorbent materials. Unfortunately, these tampons turn out to be perfect breeding grounds for staph bacteria and resulted in the deaths of several young women and the products being pulled off the market.

Also known as the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, group A Streptococcus (GAS), Streptococcus pyogenes, or just plain staph bacteria, Toxic Shock Syndrome is caused when the toxic substances produced by these bacteria permeate the body membranes and enters the bloodstream in large amounts.

Where does it come from?

Here’s the thing though – staph bacteria is already naturally present in the vagina. Your body is covered in tons of microorganisms at any given time. The vagina is host to a microflora of harmless bacteria that are normally kept in check by your vagina’s natural pH levels and discharge. This is why washing the vulva with anything aside from water is usually a bad idea. It will upset the natural microflora balance.

When your natural balance gets upset, then the bodily defenses your vagina has can no longer keep the bacteria in check. Staph bacteria, which is otherwise perfectly harmless, gets to grow out of control. But the thing is, it is still bacteria.

To be clear, TSS isn’t limited to feminine hygiene product users – just about everyone is vulnerable to the bacteria as well. Many people have become victims of staph bacteria entering surgery wounds, open wounds, and burns. If the bacteria can breed rapidly and enter the bloodstream, it can still cause TSS, regardless of its cause. Of course, this means sex can’t cause TSS. Intercourse does nothing to promote the growth of the bacteria in the first place.

How did it come to this?

You don’t see Toxic Shock Syndrome being a thing of worry among pad users and for a good reason. Although pad users aren’t invulnerable to getting TSS, the placement of the pad outside the body makes it harder for bacteria to truly get inside the vagina.

Tampons gained their bad reputation as a result of holding blood inside the vagina. This made tampons the perfect breeding environment for staph bacteria, due to the tampon being warm and moist. On top of that, the material of the tampon likely causes plenty of micro-scratches against the inside lining of the vagina. Nothing too worrying for the body in the long run, but these scratches, unfortunately, make the perfect opening for the bacteria.

This doesn’t mean tampons are the only things that can cause TSS, however. Just about any medical device or bandage that holds blood against the body is capable of becoming a breeding ground for staph bacteria. As a result, you will see this disease frequently in hospitals, where bandages and dressings grow host to an explosion of staph bacteria.

So what happens, exactly?

The initial symptoms of TSS are easily dismissible since they seem to be flu-like at a glance. Additionally, the symptoms aren’t highly worrying in and of themselves. The victim gets a sudden high fever and develops rashes resembling sunburns. These mostly appear on the palm of hands and the soles of feet. They may also experience vomiting and diarrhea, and their blood pressure will drop. This low blood pressure can be related to the other symptoms that can signal the initial onset of TSS – confusion, muscle aches, headaches, and seizures.

What happens is that in response to the sudden influx of poisonous substances, the body drops the blood pressure sharply. This sudden drop in blood pressure cuts off oxygen to various body organs. The organs then start shutting down as a result of the sudden lack of oxygen, which can lead to death. Victims can die due to sudden heart or lung failure as a result of staph bacteria; just about any organ is vulnerable to failure caused by the toxins. As a result, major organ damage is still possible even if an individual successfully recovers from the illness. This is especially if they don’t get treated fast enough.

How can you avoid this?


As much as we’d like it, positive thinking isn’t going to keep something like this at bay. Rather, the easiest way to avoid this is to change your tampon regularly. Also, if you are recovering from an injury, keep your wounds clean and your bandages fresh. As scary as staph bacteria’s fatality is, in the end, it is still bacteria. If you keep things sterile and don’t give it an environment to blossom, TSS becomes a non-issue. Do not use a tampon for more than eight hours. At the 8- to 12-hour mark, the risk of TSS kicks in.

Final thoughts

Despite how scary it sounds, toxic shock syndrome is still only caused by bacteria in the end. As long as you eliminate the conditions it needs to flourish, this is an illness you won’t have to worry about. Use your tampons correctly and healthily, and you’ll be fine. However, if you find yourself with a high fever after using tampons, please see a doctor as soon as possible. In addition to remaining positive, you also want to remain safe.