Tampon risks on the rise in metro

From 2000-03, researchers found toxic shock syndrome was increasing.

Naomi Scott

Toxic shock syndrome, a rare, life-threatening bacterial infection often associated with tampon use, is on the rise, according to University researchers.

In the early 1980s, the disease infected more than 800 women and killed dozens. As a result, tampon-makers took the highest absorbency tampons off the market, and women were advised to use lower absorbency tampons.

But between 2000 and 2003, University researchers documented an increase in toxic shock syndrome cases in the Twin Cities metro area. Patrick Schlievert, lead study author and professor of microbiology, said the increase can be attributed to the re-emergence of the organism that causes the illness.

Symptoms of the disease are flulike and include a high fever, a drop in blood pressure, sunburnlike rashes, vomiting and diarrhea, he said. The disease can eventually cause seizure and organ failure in the kidneys and liver, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Abby Noble, a first-year architecture student, said she hadn’t heard about the syndrome’s flulike symptoms.

“I only think of it as extreme cases, like death or paralysis,” she said. “I never think it can take more minor symptoms.”

The type of bacteria that causes the syndrome can affect anyone, Schlievert said.

“All it has to have is a source of food and oxygen,” he said.

Menstruating women are at risk because of tampon usage.

A tampon looks solid but is actually “loaded with holes,” which are places oxygen can get in, Schlievert said.

Higher-absorbency tampons have more places oxygen can get in than lower-absorbency ones, Schlievert said. The oxygen then feeds the bacteria in the warm, moist environment of the vagina.

But tampon users are not the only people who can be infected with the disease, Schlievert said.

The bacteria can also get into the lungs and cause a highly fatal version of pneumonia, he said. The toxic shock form of pneumonia usually follows the flu or an upper-respiratory viral infection.

Lately, Schlievert said, he has seen the bacteria manifest as boils and abscesses on the skin.

As people age, they develop an immunity to the bacteria that causes toxic shock syndrome. Schlievert said teenagers who haven’t developed antibodies to the harmful toxins released by the bacteria are most at risk to develop the syndrome.

Marnie Peterson, a co-author of the study and professor in the College of Pharmacy, said the best thing menstruating women can do to prevent the syndrome is to not wear a tampon longer than six hours.

All tampons will be safe if they are not in the body longer than that, she said.

Schlievert said people are not as concerned about toxic shock syndrome as they used to be.

“Since it hasn’t been in the news a lot, there’s been a drift away from being knowledgeable about it,” he said.

Last year, Schlievert said, he noticed teen magazines reporting that being infected by toxic shock syndrome is less common than being struck by lightning. Schlievert said this is not true.

Ashley Penney, an English and elementary education senior, said she knew a girl in high school who almost died of toxic shock syndrome.

Penney said she thinks that while women know about the risks of the syndrome because of health classes and labels on tampon boxes, men do not.

In November, a 16-year-old girl from San Jose, Calif., died from toxic shock syndrome after leaving a soiled tampon in, the Seattle Times reported. She died within 24 hours of being admitted to the hospital.