On the Rag: Death By Tampon

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Aunt Flo’s nemesis, toxic shock syndrome (TSS), roared back into the news this year after a few high-profile cases in North America, including that of a London, Ont., woman who contracted the infection after wearing a menstrual cup. So we thought it was a good time to check in with a doc for some real talk about the disease that haunted our sex ed. classes back in the day. Here, what we learned from Dr. Jacques Balayla, a University of Montreal gynecologist.

Fear of TSS was beaten into most young women back in the ’80s and ’90s. Why is that?
In 1980, 812 U.S. cases of TSS were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 38 of the women died. Researchers quickly realized that tampons made of a blend of synthetic materials, including polyester cubes, became a breeding ground for TSS-causing bacteria, staphylococcus aureus, if left in for more than eight hours. With these findings released, the tampons that were particularly prone to causing TSS were pulled from shelves, and public awareness spread, as did education. Cases of TSS were still seen, but they aren’t nearly as common.

What are the chances of getting it these days?
An estimated one to 17 in 100,000 menstruating women will be affected. Women don’t need to be worried but should be aware that it exists and be encouraged to practise good menstrual hygiene.

How can I tell the symptoms apart from crazy-terrible PMS?
When the body is battling TSS, there are bacteria or toxins in the blood that can cause your systems to go haywire. Keep an eye out for low blood pressure, which can make you feel faint, nauseous or dizzy. Vomiting, sudden fever, skin rashes, diarrhea and severe headaches are also red flags if you’ve recently been wearing a tampon.

So you can also get TSS from a menstrual cup?
Last year, a 37-year-old woman using a DivaCup was treated at a London, Ont., hospital for TSS. Since this is the first reported case, it’s too early to draw conclusions, but women should change the cup every time it’s filled and never keep it in for prolonged periods of time: no more than eight to 12 hours.


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