There are so many things to cover when we talk to our girls about their changing bodies, and the death of one young girl reminds us how important it is to include toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, in those conversations.
Jemma-Louise Roberts was a swimmer. That was one of the reasons she chose to use tampons to manage her menstrual cycle — so that she wouldn’t have to take a break from training once a month. It’s a totally normal thing to do at that or any age; tampons have clear benefits for active girls and women, and few of us consider that there is a risk — however small — to choosing them.
That risk is TSS, an extremely rare complication caused by a bacterial infection that has been linked to tampon usage, among other things. Jemma-Louise contracted TSS and started feeling ill while on vacation. It started as a diagnosis for a stomach bug, but soon the teen got much worse and had to be hospitalized. It was there that she was diagnosed with TSS, and a week after that diagnosis, the vibrant teen was dead of a fatal brain bleed caused by a staph infection. That was over a year ago. Now, to raise awareness about World Sepsis Week, her mother is speaking out and urging other parents to speak up: to educate themselves and their daughters about TSS and how tampon usage can put them at risk.
“TSS used to be talked about in the ’80s, but you never hear it now,” Diane Roberts told the Manchester Evening News, adding that, “If it can save just one more person, it will be worth it… My husband had never heard of TSS. If one dad reads this and his daughter falls ill, it could save her life.”
TSS was widely talked about briefly in the ’80s, but the conversation died down as we learned more about what makes a better tampon and how to use them safely. Because the syndrome is so rare, and because tampons are considered much safer now, it just doesn’t come up very often.
Still, if even one child dies as a result of this preventable complication, that’s reason enough to cover all our bases when we talk to our daughters about their changing bodies. There is still so much taboo that surrounds the topic of menstruation, particularly at the age of menarche, when girls are self-conscious and may not be open to talking about this private aspect of themselves.
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It’s because of this that so many of us stick to the bare facts or offload the task onto a book or middle school sex ed class. The conversation can be awkward, and some of this avoidance is born of good intention: We don’t want to make our daughters even more uncomfortable by talking to them about the nitty-gritty of tampon use and safety. But we should.
TSS, while rare, can be fatal, and it can turn that way quickly. Because we don’t hear about it often, it’s easy to get a misdiagnosis, as Gemma-Louise did, since its symptoms look just like the flu at their onset.
And that onset is fast. A person can go from feeling perfectly fine to having a fever of 102 degrees F in a matter of mere hours. Other symptoms to be on the lookout for include a severe drop in blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea and a telltale rash that resembles sunburn that can appear anywhere on the body. Someone with TSS might also appear confused or have bloodshot eyes.
If TSS is suspected, it’s important to get to the doctor immediately. Once there, you can’t skip the information that your daughter has been using a tampon; it could be the difference between a misdiagnosis and the treatment she needs to recover.
What’s saddest about stories like these is that TSS is preventable. By simply washing your hands before and after inserting a tampon, changing your tampon regularly and using the smallest possible tampon to handle your flow, the odds are small that you will ever experience something so devastating.
Unfortunately a lot of girls just don’t know that yet. There’s so much trial and error in navigating your period, especially if it’s new to you or you don’t feel comfortable approaching an adult. Teens might think that a heavy-flow tampon can stay in longer, when that simply isn’t the case.
These are the things that we, as parents — including dads, as Gemma-Louise’s mother pointed out — have to tell them. We are the ones with experience, and we are the ones who can model to our teens that, when it comes to our bodies and our safety, there is no shame in asking questions or for help in managing our periods.
Getting your period is a fact of life. Once, that meant that your quality of life was greatly diminished, but thanks to many factors — including tampons — that’s no longer the case. But it should never, ever mean losing your life.