toxic shock syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome can affect anyone. Know the symptoms.

Joanne Brown DNP, APRN

Joanne Brown DNP, APRN

Written by Joanne Brown, DNP, APRN, an adjunct instructor in the UK College of Nursing and women’s health nurse practitioner at University Health Service.

Toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, is a life-threatening illness that occurs when poisonous toxins are released into the bloodstream, potentially damaging skin tissue and harming vital organs, such as the lung, liver and kidney.

It’s important to remember that toxic shock syndrome can affect anyone. The disease can occur in women, men and children of all ages.

It was first reported in children in 1978, but it was later identified in women who were using tampons during their menstrual periods. However, after highly absorbent tampons were removed from the market, the number of TSS cases associated with the use of tampons has declined. In fact, 50 percent of TSS cases today are not associated with menstruation.

Risk factors, symptoms of toxic shock syndrome

Risk factors for TSS include:

  • Recent childbirth.
  • Skin infections, cuts and burns.
  • Wound infection after surgery.
  • Viral infections, such as the flu or chickenpox.
  • Use of contraceptive sponges, diaphragms, super-absorbent tampons, nasal packing and other foreign items.

Common symptoms of TSS are:

  • Sudden high fever.
  • A rash resembling a sunburn, especially on the palms and soles of the feet.
  • Peeling skin one to two weeks after the onset of acute illness.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Redness of the eyes, mouth and throat.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Seizures.
  • Confusion.
  • Headaches and muscles aches.

There is currently no test used to identify TSS. Clinicians can make a diagnosis based on a physical examination and the patient’s symptoms. Some examinations may include blood tests to check organ function or swab samples from the cervix, vagina and throat.

Treatment for TSS

Treatment includes removal of foreign bodies and drainage of infections. Patients may be prescribed antibiotics to fight bacterial infections in the body as well as dialysis, intravenous therapy and medicines to control blood pressure. Patients with a severe condition might need to stay in the hospital intensive care unit for monitoring.

Anyone who notices signs of TSS should see a doctor immediately, especially if the person has a wound or skin infection or has recently used tampons. TSS can cause severe health concerns, such as liver, kidney, and heart failure, and shock or reduced blood flow through the body. TSS is a medical emergency that can cause death if untreated.

TSS can reoccur. To lower the risk of menstrual TSS, avoid using highly absorbent tampons, change tampons frequently and alternate using tampons and sanitary napkins.


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