Toxic shock syndrome is something most people who menstruate know about and fear thanks to warnings on the sides of tampon boxes and some very convincing elementary school health teachers. But for model Lauren Wasser, that fear became a reality.
Back in 2012, when Wasser was 24, she contracted TSS, she told Style Like U. She had her period and was using tampons and didn’t think twice when she started feeling sick with flu-like symptoms, including headache, nausea and a fever. She went to bed, thinking she just needed some rest, but awoke to her dog barking and police officers knocking at her door. Though she sent them away, saying she simply needed more rest, the police returned again hours later and found her collapsed on her floor.
“I had a 107°F fever; my kidneys were failing; I had a heart attack,” Wasser told Style Like U. “Thank God there was an infectious disease doctor there [at the hospital] because as soon as they found me, I was plummeting so bad they couldn’t understand why a healthy, young 24-year-old like me was dying.”
Wasser started responding to treatment in the hospital as soon as doctors removed her tampon. After that, she was put in a medically induced coma, put on antibiotics and given fluids to help flush the bacteria out of her system.
According to the Mayo Clinic, TSS is a serious, potentially life-threatening complication of a bacterial infection, often resulting from toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria or by group A streptococcus (strep) bacteria.
Wasser’s bacterial infection spread to her legs, which turned gangrenous. Initially, doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs below the knee, but Wasser refused and only had one leg removed instead.
“I saw it as a 50-50 chance,” Wasser told Vice. “We did two baby foreskin grafts, which — miraculously, thank God — were the only thing that saved my foot. Today, my toes are gone. My heel finally closed up, but it’s super sensitive, and I have no fat pad there.”
Wasser and her family are in the process of suing Kimberly-Clark Corporation, which manufactures the Kotex Natural Balance tampons she was using when she contracted TSS, as well as Kroger and Ralph’s grocery store chain, where she purchased the tampons.
What you should know about TSS
First of all, TSS is not limited to people who menstruate. Although most closely associated with leaving a tampon in too long, only about half the cases of TSS occur in people with periods. Yes, as Wasser’s case proves, super-absorbent tampons could be the cause of TSS, but it is also associated with cuts and burns on your skin, recent surgery and having a viral infection (like the flu or chickenpox). In addition to tampons, using contraceptive sponges and diaphragms can also be behind TSS.
What’s tricky about TSS is that most of the symptoms look like you have the flu, so it can be hard to detect. These include a sudden high fever; low blood pressure; vomiting or diarrhea; a rash that looks like a sunburn (especially on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet); confusion; muscle aches; redness of the eyes, mouth and throat; seizures; and headaches. If you have a skin injury and/or have recently used tampons and experience these symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.
Also, TSS is not like chickenpox and can definitely recur. So just because you had it once doesn’t mean you’re done with it. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, if you’ve previously had TSS or a serious staph or strep infection, you shouldn’t really use tampons after that just to be on the safe side. For everyone else who wants to use tampons, using low-absorbency tampons is recommended along with changing them every four to eight hours. There are also many other options for period products, including pads (both reusable and disposable), menstrual cups and menstrual discs. In fact, the rest of the world favors these options. The U.S. is the only country in the world where tampons are the most popular period product.
The (sort of) promising news
Things are getting slightly better. Some of the materials and designs used for tampons that are known to cause TSS are no longer being used by some manufacturers in the United States.
But we still have a long way to go. The Food & Drug Administration classifies some period products as cosmetics, while others are classified as medical devices. You’d think the medical devices categorization would be more beneficial, but in fact, the opposite is true because the FDA requires cosmetics to list all their ingredients — the same is not true for medical devices. As counterintuitive as this sounds, the medical devices classification is hurting us because we have no idea what we’re literally sticking inside ourselves.
Considering vaginal tissue is one of the most absorptive parts of the body, knowing the components of tampons is especially important. In Wasser’s case, the results cost her a leg and nearly her life.