UI Professor: Toxic Shock Syndrome More Common Than You'd Think

Published: Dec. 24, 2015 at 6:48 AM CST
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Menstrual toxic shock syndrome is more common than you might think. That's according to one professor at the University of Iowa, who's been studying TSS for decades.

You probably remember learning about it in high school health class. Toxic shock syndrome is an illness that can be set off by feminine hygiene products.

Two weeks ago Cedar Rapids teen Kailee Becker came down with something that made her miserably sick. She likely had TSS. But at first, she thought it was just the flu. The symptoms were similar.

"Shaky and cold," said Becker. "Dry heaving, nonstop. My mom took to the hospital."

There, doctors thought flu too. They gave Becker some meds and sent her home.

She got better, at first, then much worse. The chills came back. Her fever rose to around 103. Becker was weak and could barely move.

Her mom took her back to the hospital where a doctor discovered Becker had a rash. The doctor discarded the flu diagnosis and started looking into TSS.

"People should go in [to physicians] and say, 'Look I've got a 103 degree fever,'" said Professor Patrick Schlievert, chair of microbiology at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine. "That's a bacterial infection."

Schlievert said because TSS mimics flu symptoms, misdiagnoses happen all the time.

A Google search shows many websites are quick to call TSS “rare” or “very rare." Prevalence is often estimated at one or two per 100,000 women.

Professor Schlievert's research suggests 10,000 women get menstrual TSS each year. If left untreated, it can shut down a person's vital organs, even kill them.

"This disease is extremely severe," said Schlievert. "It's important that you recognize it."

Schlievert said menstrual TSS is caused by a strain of staph bacteria that a some women have in their bodies. When those women have their period, the bacteria grows. Schlievert said the bacteria will create a poison if it's given oxygen.

That oxygen can come from absorbent tampons. The more absorbent, the more oxygen and thus the potential for more poison.

"If you think about how big a grain of salt is," Schlievert said, "the amount to cause toxic shock syndrome is a tenth of a grain of salt."

Schlievert said that manufacturers are making less absorbent products these days. Because of that, the severity of TSS cases has decreased over the years. But, prevalence is still a problem, which is why Schlievert wants more awareness brought to the illness.

Becker, who's getting better and expected to make a full recovery, does too.

"I spent seven days in the hospital, dry heaving, not feeling good," Becker said. "I don't want any other person to ever go through what I had to go through."