What is toxic shock syndrome?
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but life-threatening bacterial infection.
It occurs when the bacteria responsible - Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, which normally live harmlessly on the skin - invade the body's bloodstream and release poisonous toxins.
These toxins cause a sudden high fever and a massive drop in blood pressure (shock), resulting in dizziness and confusion. You may also have vomiting and diarrhoea.
The toxins also damage tissue, including skin and organs, and can disturb many vital organ functions. Read more about the symptoms of TSS.
What to do
TSS is a medical emergency and you should see your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of the symptoms of TSS.
If your doctor suspects you have TSS, you'll be admitted to hospital immediately and treated in an intensive care unit. The goal is to fight the infection with antibiotics and support any functions of the body that have been affected.
Read more about the treatment of TSS.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can get TSS – men, women and children. For reasons that are still not understood, a significant proportion of cases occur in women who are on their period and using a tampon, particularly tampons that are designed to be 'super absorbent’.
TSS can also occur as a result of an infected boil, insect bite or wound, for example. Some cases are associated with skin damage from a burn or scald, which allows the bacteria to enter the body and release toxins.
Find out more about the causes of TSS.
The risk of TSS is greater in young people. It is thought that this is because many older people have developed immunity (resistance) to the toxins produced by the bacteria.
If TSS is diagnosed and treated early with antibiotics, there is a good chance of recovery.
If it is left untreated, the combination of shock and organ damage can result in death.
Toxic shock syndrome symptoms
The symptoms of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) normally begin with a sudden high fever (body temperature rises above 38°C/100.4°F).
Other symptoms then rapidly develop, normally in the course of a few hours. They may include:
- a sunburn-like skin rash, with the whites of the eyes becoming red/pink
- fainting or feeling faint
- muscle aches
Shedding of the skin in large sheets, especially from the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, is usually seen one to two weeks after becoming ill.
When to seek medical advice
If you develop a sudden fever and one or more of the other symptoms listed above, it is still extremely unlikely that you have TSS. Nevertheless, symptoms like these should never be ignored. Contact your doctor, local out-of-hours service.
If you are wearing a tampon, remove it straight away. Also tell your doctor if you have been using a tampon, recently suffered a burn or skin injury, or if you have a skin infection such as a boil or a blister that has become infected.
Causes of toxic shock syndrome
Not much is understood about toxic shock syndrome (TSS), although cases have been linked to wound infections and the use of super absorbent tampons, contraceptive diaphragms and vaginal sponges.
The bacteria involved in TSS - Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes - can be found on the skin and in the nose of approximately 20-30% of all people. They usually cause no serious problems.
Most people have toxin-fighting proteins known as antibodies, which can protect the body against these toxins. However, for reasons that are unknown, a small percentage of people do not develop these specific antibodies.
What is known is that the bacteria can enter the body through a wound, burn, the throat or the vagina. They release toxins into the bloodstream, and these toxins interfere with the processes that regulate blood pressure, causing it to drop to a dangerously low level. The bacteria also attack tissues, including the skin, muscles and organs.
Kidneys are particularly vulnerable to the toxins as they filter waste products from your blood. Kidney failure is a common complication in untreated TSS.
The role of tampons remains unexplained. One theory is that if a tampon is left in your vagina for some time, as is often the case with the more absorbent types of tampons, it can become a breeding ground for the bacteria.
Another theory is that the fibres of the tampon may scratch your vagina, allowing the bacteria or the toxins to enter the blood.
No evidence has been found to support either theory.
Toxic shock syndrome diagnosis
There is no single test for toxic shock syndrome (TSS). The condition is diagnosed by looking for the typical symptoms and checking for evidence of organ failure.
Organ function can be tested in a variety of ways, including blood and urine tests.
A confident diagnosis of TSS can usually be made when:
- you have a temperature of 38.9 °C (102.02 °F) or more
- you have low blood pressure, fainting and dizziness
- you have a widespread flat red skin rash
- three or more of your organs have been affected by infection
If all of the above are present, it is likely that you have TSS.
Toxic shock syndrome treatment
There are two important goals in the treatment of toxic shock syndrome (TSS): fighting the infection and supporting any functions of the body that have been affected.
You will need to be admitted to hospital straight away and may need to be treated in an intensive care unit.
Most people will respond to treatment within a couple of days, but it may take several weeks before they are well enough to leave hospital.
The infection can normally be treated by a combination of antibiotics, which are given directly into the bloodstream via a drip (intravenously).
In some cases, immunoglobulin may also be given as well as antibiotics. Immunoglobulin is a sample of donated human blood known to contain a high level of antibodies, which can be used to fight the toxins produced by the bacteria.
Oxygen is given to support breathing. Fluids are administered to raise blood pressure. They also help to prevent dehydration and organ damage.
If the kidneys stop functioning, a dialysis machine is used to filter the blood. For more information, see the Health A-Z topic about dialysis.
Cleaning infected tissue
If the toxins have damaged parts of the skin, or other extremities of the body such as the fingers or toes, the infected tissue will need to be drained and cleaned. In very severe cases, it may be necessary to surgically remove parts of the skin or amputate (remove by surgery) an extremity of the body.
Toxic shock syndrome prevention
Prompt and thorough treatment of wounds on the body can help to prevent infection and any risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) occuring.
Care when using tampons
The link between TSS and tampon use is unclear, but research suggests that tampon absorbency may be a factor. For this reason, it is important that you:
- always use a tampon with the lowest absorbency suitable for your period flow
- alternate tampons with a sanitary towel or panty liners during your period
You should also remember to:
- wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon
- change tampons regularly - as often as directed on the pack
- never insert more than one tampon at a time
- when using one at night, insert a fresh tampon before going to bed and remove it on waking
- remove a tampon at the end of a period
Information about TSS is contained in the tampon manufacturer’s instruction leaflet. This information is often updated, so it is important to read the leaflet regularly.
TSS has been known to recur, so avoid using tampons if you have had TSS before.
Female barrier contraception
If you are using a female barrier form of contraception, such as a diaphragm, cap or contraceptive sponge, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions about how long you can leave the device in your vagina. If these devices are left in for too long, they could cause an infection and potentially TSS.
If you have had TSS in the past, you may wish to use an alternative method of contraception.