Toxic Shock Syndrome: Available Wherever Tampons Are Sold

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So here’s something I haven’t thought about in a long time: Toxic Shock Syndrome. Ben even asked me about it recently, having glanced at a box of tampons in the bathroom: “Oh yeah, Toxic Shock. Do you worry about that?” “It’s nothing,” I said. “Someone died once in 1983 and we’ve had the little warning on the side ever since.”

Turns out, who’d have guessed, I was wrong, as a lengthy piece in Vice — focused on Lauren Wasser, a young model and basketball player who lost a leg to the ramifications of TSS, and whose enraged mother is now throwing lawsuits in all directions — makes clear:

TSS, which got its name in 1978, is basically a complication of bacterial infections, frequently involving staph bacteria (or Staphylococcus aureus). It isn’t a female-only condition, but there’s been a link between it and tampon usage for decades, due largely to a spike in TSS-related deaths in the 1980s. (A tampon alone is not enough to cause TSS—a person must already have Staphylococcus aureus present in his or her body. About 20 percent of the general population carries the bacteria.)

Tampons and tampon-like objects have been used by women during their menstrual cycles for centuries, but over the past 50 or so years, their composition has changed from natural ingredients like cotton to synthetic ingredients like rayon and plastic, especially among the big tampon manufacturers—Playtex, Tampax, Kotex. These synthetic fibers, along with a tampon’s absorbency, can form an ideal environment for staph bacteria to flourish. When Proctor & Gamble debuted an extra-absorbent tampon called Rely in the 80s, it created the perfect storm for TSS, resulting in a number of deaths.

The answer, if you’re looking to avoid infection, gangrene, amputation, and possibly death? 100% cotton tampons, if you can find them, and don’t wear them at night. Or avoid them altogether, which is what Lauren Wasser is planning to do.

Where did the convenient but dangerous little buggers come from in the first place? There’s some great consumer history here:

There’s evidence that tampons in some form or another existed in the ancient world, but the tampon as we know it today didn’t come on the scene un​til 1936, when Tampax put the first commercial version on the market. Tampons had been used as a way to administer vaginal medication, but not as a menstrual product. This was a new frontier. …

Still, tampons didn’t really pick up steam until women had a real good reason to switch: fashion. As skirts became shorter, thinner, and tighter, and bathing suits (and eventually, bikinis) finally came on the scene, the bulky, bel​ted, diaper-like pads women had worn suddenly seemed really impractical, [historian] Freidenfelds said. Women started to take to the tampon, and never looked back.

Over the ensuing decades, women still used pads, and would alternate or sometimes combine the two options. Pads really made a comeback when the belt was eliminated and the stick-on pad invented in the 70s. In the 80s, with the invention of the “wings” (they wrap around the crotch of the underwear), pads were really able to compete with tampons.

But not a lot has happened in the world of sanitary protection technology since.

Newer-fangled alternatives include menstrual cups and magic underwear. Some people make their own pads out of flannel; no doubt these are the same people who can do the cloth diaper thing for more than a few months before switching to disposables. For now it seems that most women will continue spending zillions on Kotex. Perhaps the brouhaha raised over cases like this will at least incentivize the Big Three brands to create a 100% all-natural cotton version and allow us mitigate our risk.

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