A teenager in the UK died this year as a result of having a toxic shock reaction to using her first tampon. Her family is now, admirably, trying to raise awareness, but how likely is it for a tampon to cause such serious health problems?
Fourteen-year-old Natasha Scott-Falber from Caerwent, Wales in the UK, died on Valentine’s Day this year after falling ill with what at the time was suspected to be the norovirus, sometimes known as the winter vomiting bug. Further investigation revealed that the young woman had in fact probably died of toxic shock after using a tampon for the first time. Now her family is raising awareness of the condition.
The dangers of using a tampon improperly, for instance leaving the tampon in the body for an extended period beyond general guidelines, is well known. Scott-Falber had followed all the instructions properly, however, and still suffered. So why did she die? Also, how common is toxic shock?
Toxic Shock Syndrome: Life-Threatening but Rare
Toxic shock happens when a normally harmless bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes get into a person’s bloodstream and start releasing poisonous toxins.
These toxins can cause a person to develop a high fever and can quickly cause a massive drop in blood pressure — which is where the shock aspect comes in, presenting as confusion, disorientation and even passing out. Other symptoms can include:
- a rash similar to sunburn
- whites of the eyes turning pink or even red
- muscle aches
- skin shedding in large sheets
Toxic Shock Syndrome is classed as a medical emergency and if TSS is suspected, contacting a doctor straight away is recommended.
While anyone can develop toxic shock, it is young women who use tampons, in particularly the “super absorbent” kind, that make up a significant proportion of cases. This is thought to be because younger women have not yet built up a resistance to the toxins the bacteria produce. Other probable causes of toxic shock can include an infected wound, bite or boil.
Toxic shock is treatable if caught early but if not diagnosed early enough, the damage to the person’s organs together with the symptoms of shock can be life threatening.
In Scott-Falber’s case, the symptoms appear to have been missed precisely because toxic shock is very rare. In fact, toxic shock is thought to only affect about 40 people in the UK every year and an even smaller proportion of them develop cases that will ultimately prove fatal. The case was further complicated by the fact that Scott-Falber had followed all the guidelines about using a tampon, meaning that her risk was even smaller.
Scott-Falber’s family is now launching a public awareness campaign about the possible dangers of not following the guidelines on how to use a tampon, and trying to educate people on the symptoms of toxic shock.
“We thought that one thing we could do, to honor Natasha, and to help others, would be to start an awareness campaign about toxic shock syndrome,” the teenager’s family is quoted as saying. “We are in communication with Public Health Wales, the two main tampon companies, and we have already had some success with GPs and with the education system in Gwent. We are determined to make at least everyone in the UK aware of what the symptoms are, and what the risks are.”
Health service BUPA, while reiterating that the link between toxic shock and tampons is still not fully understood, is quoted as offering this advice on how to prevent toxic shock:
“If you’re a woman using tampons, use a tampon with the lowest absorbency suitable for your menstrual blood flow, change your tampon frequently, use a sanitary towel or panty liner from time to time during your period, never insert more than one tampon at one time and use a sanitary towel at night instead of a tampon.”
Unfortunately, the message about toxic shock being serious but relatively rare seems to have got lost in some of the media’s headlines, so it’s worth repeating: when used properly, your tampon is very unlikely to kill you.
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