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About Toxic Shock Syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a serious but uncommon infection caused by either Staphylococcus aureus bacteria or by streptococcus bacteria.

Originally linked to the use of tampons, especially high-absorbency ones and those that are not changed frequently, it's now also known to be associated with the contraceptive sponge and diaphragm birth control methods.

TSS also can arise from wounds secondary to minor trauma or surgery incisions where bacteria have been able to enter the body and cause the infection.

TSS also can affect anyone who has any type of staph infection, including pneumonia, abscess, skin or wound infection, the blood infection septicemia, or the bone infection osteomyelitis.

Most often, streptococcal TSS appears after bacteria have invaded areas of injured skin, such as cuts and scrapes, surgical wounds, and even chickenpox blisters.

Symptoms of TSS can include sudden high fever, a faint feeling, diarrhea, headache, a rash, and muscle aches. If your child has these symptoms, call your doctor right away.

Symptoms

Toxic shock syndrome starts suddenly, often with high fever (temperature at least 102º F [38.8º C]), a rapid drop in blood pressure (with lightheadedness or fainting), vomiting, diarrhea, headache, sore throat, or muscle aches.

A sunburn-like rash may appear anywhere on the body, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. A person also might have bloodshot eyes and an unusual redness under the eyelids or inside the mouth (and vagina in females). The area around an infected wound can become swollen, red, and tender, or may not even appear infected.

Other symptoms may include confusion or other mental changes, decreased urination, fatigue and weakness, and thirst.

If TSS is untreated, organs such as the liver and kidneys may begin to fail, and problems such as seizures, bleeding, and heart failure can develop.

Prevention

The bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome can be carried on unwashed hands and prompt an infection anywhere on the body. So good hand washing is extremely important.

Girls can reduce their risk of TSS by either avoiding tampons or alternating them with sanitary napkins. Girls who use only tampons should choose ones with the lowest absorbency that will handle menstrual flow, and change the tampons frequently. On low-flow days, girls should use pads instead of tampons.

Between menstrual periods, store tampons away from heat and moisture (where bacteria can grow) — for example, in a bedroom rather than in a bathroom closet.

Because staphylococcus bacteria are often carried on hands, it's important for girls to wash their hands thoroughly before and after inserting a tampon. If your daughter has her menstrual period, talk to her about taking these precautions. Any female who has recovered from TSS should not use tampons.

Clean and bandage all skin wounds as quickly as possible. Call your doctor immediately whenever a wound becomes red, swollen, or tender, or if a fever begins.

Diagnosis and Treatment

TSS is a medical emergency. If you think your child has TSS, call a doctor right away. Depending on the symptoms, a doctor may see you in the office or refer you to a hospital emergency department for immediate evaluation and testing.

If doctors suspect TSS, they will probably start intravenous (IV) fluids and antibiotics as soon as possible. They may take a sample from the suspected site of the infection, such as the skin, nose, or vagina, to check it for TSS. They may also take a blood sample.

Other blood tests can help monitor how various organs like the kidneys are working and check for other diseases that may be causing the symptoms.

Medical staff will remove tampons, contraceptive devices, or wound packing; clean any wounds; and, if there is a pocket of infection (an abscess), a doctor may need to drain pus from the infected area.

People with TSS typically need to stay in the hospital, often in the intensive care unit (ICU), for several days to closely monitor blood pressure, respiratory status, and to look for signs of other problems, such as organ damage.

TSS is a very rare illness. Although it can be fatal, if recognized and treated promptly it is usually curable.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor immediately if your child has any signs or symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. Once you realize that something is wrong, it's important to get medical attention right away. The sooner your child gets treatment, the better.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: January 2011

 
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Related Resources:
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
This site offers information on numerous health issues. The women's health section includes readings on pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum care, breast health, menopause, contraception, and more.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.
WomensHealth.gov
Developed by the U.S. Office on Women's Health, 4woman offers reliable women's health information.