When you hear about the dangers of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), the conversation typically focuses on the risk of leaving a tampon in for too long. While that can up your chances of getting TSS, using the appropriate size tampon according to your current flow is equally important—a fact that one North Carolina woman learned after she nearly died from TSS as a result of wearing and removing a super-absorbent tampon during a light flow day.
Earlier this year, Greta Zarate, a 32-year-old mother of five, experienced flu-like symptoms on the day she started her period, Fox News reports. But after treating her symptoms with over-the-counter medication and spending a few days in bed, Zarate realized she was only getting “sicker and sicker.”
“I suffered all of the symptoms of TSS but I confused it for the flu—nausea and diarrhea, dizziness, [and] achy muscles. The only thing I didn’t get was a rash, which is often a symptom of it,” Zarate told British news agency, South West News Service (SWNS), according to Fox News.
Zarate then went to the hospital, where she learned her blood pressure was extremely low and her spleen was enlarged, as her body was attempting to fight off an infection. She was diagnosed with TSS, which had developed after she removed a super-absorbent tampon when her period flow was light, resulting in microscopic cuts on her vaginal walls that allowed bacteria to enter her body and cause an infection, according to Fox News.
Zarate said she knew that leaving a tampon in for too long can potentially lead to TSS. “[But] I never knew that the size of the tampon should move with your flow,” she told SWNS, per Fox News.
After 11 days in the hospital—including four days in intensive care—Zarate was treated with a blood transfusion and a round of antibiotics.
Fortunately, she made a full recovery, but this illustrates that tampon sizes remain a less commonly known cause of TSS, especially as the mortality rate for TSS has continued to drop, says Yvonne Bohn, M.D., an ob-gyn and chief medical correspondent for Cystex. Here’s a breakdown of the relationship between TSS and tampon size.
What is toxic shock syndrome?
TSS is a clinical illness—typically caused by the bacteria staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as staph)—that can result in a high fever, fainting, a flat red rash on the skin that looks like a sunburn, very low blood pressure (called hypotension), and potential failure of multiple organs, explains Dr. Bohn. Long-term complications include liver or kidney failure, and at its most extreme, TSS can lead to amputation of fingers, toes, or limbs, and even death, she adds.
Though young women most commonly experience TSS, anyone is at risk (including men and children), because we all carry the staph bacteria that produce the toxins that can lead to infection, says Dr. Bohn.
TSS can usually be diagnosed based on clinical signs (like the presence of a rash or a significantly low blood pressure reading), laboratory evidence of liver or kidney failure, or by finding cultures that have traces of staph bacteria, adds Dr. Bohn, who notes that TSS can come on very suddenly and requires immediate medical attention.