Image: Lauren Wasser (via Instagram — @loverunswild)
You’d be hard pressed to find any tampon user who hadn’t heard of toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
The risks surrounding this scary-sounding illness are drummed into us when we first get our period. Yet after a few years most women don’t even bother reading the warnings in the information pamphlet, confident that as long as they don’t leave their tampon in too long, they’ll be okay.
Then a story like that of 24-year-old Lauren Wasser comes along.
In October 2012, the model was feeling a “little off”. On her period, she went down to the shops to buy tampons as usual, and was sure to change them every three to four hours.
As the day went on, she felt worse and worse. “I tried to act normal but I was struggling to stay upright,” she told Vice. She went home to bed.
The next day, a friend found the 24 year-old face down on her bedroom floor, and she was rushed to hospital. She'd suffered a massive heart attack and her internal organs were starting to shut down. Doctors say she was just ten minutes from death.
Vice reports an infectious disease specialist asked Wasser if she had a tampon in, which was then sent to be tested. It came back positive for toxic shock syndrome.
The infection turned into gangrene, which eventually became so bad Wasser needed an emergency below-the-knee amputation.
Three years later, Wasser says she is still in pain. She requires frequent maintenance surgeries and may even need another amputation later in life when she's 50 years-old. She is now in the process of suing both the company that make the tampons and the store she bought them in.
It's obviously a horrific story, but one that, reassuringly, is very uncommon.
“Toxic shock syndrome is, generally, incredibly rare. Less than one per cent of tampon users would be at risk,” says Dr Daria Fielder of Sapphire Family Medical Practice.
To put it into perspective, occurrence rate is less than one per 100,000.
TSS is caused by infection with certain types of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) infection. Although the synthetic fibres and absorbency potential of tampons can make an ideal environment for the bacteria to breed, a tampon alone is not enough to cause TSS - you must already have the staph bacteria in your body.
"It's important to remember that tampons are not the only way to get TSS — men and even children can get it. Tampons are just one way you can get it," says Dr Fielder. (Post continues after gallery.)
It is believed the staph bacteria can over-grow in the presence of a blood-soaked tampon, which is why it is recommended to change your tampon every three to four hours.
“It’s the duration of a foreign material covered in blood that allows the bacteria that causes TSS to breed," she says.
"It usually happens only if tampons are used incorrectly, and while it's a very small risk, it's something women should at least be aware of."
Dr Fiedler says feeling "very sick" can indicate TSS.
"Signs include nausea, abdominal pains, a temperature, feeling faint, a characteristic rash all over your body that if flaky and looks like your skin is peeling off," she explains.
"They're definitely not subtle symptoms — you'll feel very sick and they should all be signs that would make you go to the doctor anyway."
There are also some quick and easy precautions you can take to reduce the risk of getting TSS.
"You can reduce the chances of TSS by not buying super absorbent tampons," advises Dr Fiedler. While it's commonly thought you can leave super absorbent tampons in longer than regular ones, Dr Fiedler cautions that this isn't the case.
She also advises changing your tampon every four hours, although if you're busy at work and in a meeting and can't for six hours, then it's okay as a one-off. (Post continues after gallery.)
"Don't forget you've put a tampon in either! I've had to remove tampons from women who've had complaints and completely forgotten they'd put them in," she says.
“That’s why I always recommend using a pad for night time, just in case.”
So while the chances of you getting TSS are slim, if you are concerned, Dr Fielder advises sticking to standard tampons and only using them when you need to — for example when you're at work or being active.
When you're at home, use pads or other alternative options like a menstrual cup.
Do you worry about toxic shock syndrome? Do you know anyone who has had it?