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What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Toxic shock syndrome is an acute bacterial infection caused by either Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria. When these bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can generate toxins which produce an assortment of symptoms which will lead to death if they are not addressed. While toxic shock syndrome is commonly linked in the public mind with tampon use, thanks to a scare in the 1970s, there are other risk factors for toxic shock syndrome which should be avoided.

In the 1970s, a strange medical condition began to be identified in otherwise strong, healthy young women. It started with a high fever, rash, vomiting, and diarrhea, which evolved into shock as doctors were unsure of the cause of the condition, so they could not treat it. Shock is characterized by a drop in body temperature and a slow failure of someone's organs. Doctors began to refer to the condition as “toxic shock syndrome.” The patients kept dying until doctors realized that tampon use had apparently introduced harmful bacteria into their bloodstreams.

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In the 1970s, tampons were not widely regulated in the United States. They contained some harmful components like fiberglass which could cause minute scratches and tears which would allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream. In addition, super-absorbent tampons were left in for extremely long periods of time, essentially acting as a breeding grounds for bacteria which then entered the bloodstream. When the root cause of toxic shock syndrome was realized, regulations were introduced to the tampon market to ensure that the risks of toxic shock syndrome were addressed.

Any sort of cut or wound on the body can be an entry site for bacteria which may cause toxic shock syndrome. For this reason, it is extremely important to wash your hands regularly and to clean all cuts, removing bacteria which could enter the bloodstream. Tampons should also be used with care. Ideally they should not be left in for more than four hours, and they should be alternated with pads. Patients who have had staph or strep infections before should avoid tampons altogether. If a patient exhibits signs of toxic shock syndrome, he or she should be immediately taken to the hospital or to a doctor, as the onset of shock can be rapid.

When caught early, toxic shock syndrome can be treated with aggressive antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria. Treatment of toxic shock syndrome can get more serious if the condition has progressed; the patient may require a course of drug treatments and medical intervention to treat organ failure, for example. In some cases, dialysis may be needed in the case of kidney failure, which is caused by a buildup of toxins in the body.

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