The Shocking Outcomes of Toxic Shock Syndrome


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

For women, tampons can be life-savers. What on Earth did we do before them?!

But in 2012, 24-year-old model Lauren Wasser’s life was changed forever after using a tampon of the same brand of tampons she had been using for 11 years.

“It was a normal day in my life. I was on my period...I changed my tampon,” Wasser said.

But things took a turn for the worse, to say the least.

Wasser started experiencing “flu-like” symptoms. Despite not feeling well, she still stopped by a friend’s birthday party that took place later that night.

(I think we can all relate to “toughing it out” when we are not feeling well, in order to honor our obligations).

After a brief visit at the party, Wasser continued to feel horrible and just desperately wanted to  go home and sleep.

Then after around two days or so, police found Wasser lying face down on her bedroom floor. She had a 107 degree fever, her kidneys were failing and she even had a heart attack.

Wasser was then put in a medically induced coma for a week and a half. She said in an interview that doctors told her mother to start preparing her funeral. She had bad gangrene, and doctors had no choice but to amputate her right leg and some of the toes on her left foot.

But miraculously, she pulled through and battled through the harsh reality that modeling and playing sports, two major parts of her life, were never going to be the same again.

Just recently (January of 2018, five years after getting TSS) Wasser had her other leg amputated. Reportedly back in 2012 when she had her right leg amputated doctors recommended they amputate the left leg as well, but she refused.

But after years of suffering from excruciating pain, she knew her quality of life would improve if she amputated her other leg.

“I don’t have toes, and I have to go to wound care every Monday for my heel. I’m in so much pain. It’s a hard decision, but my only way to freedom,” Wasser said in a People Magazine interview. “I can’t wait to have two gold blades, to run and feel the wind on my face again.”

She is sharing her story with the world today to spread awareness about what happened to her - toxic shock syndrome.

What is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a complication of a bacterial infection.

There are two types of TSS, the most common one being Staphylococcal toxic shock (caused by Staph bacteria).

Staph is a common bacteria that lives on skin, in the nose and respiratory tract, and is usually harmless. Strep is found in the throat and on the skin,” says this report.

The second, less common type of TSS is Streptococcal toxic shock (caused by Strep bacteria, same bacteria when people get Strep throat).

Toxins secreted by these bacteria may cause the immune system to produce chemicals known as cytokines which cause shock and tissue damage.

TSS was first detected in children in 1978. It became an even bigger concern in the 80s and 90s when it was tied to menstruating women who used tampons.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says toxic shock syndrome occurs when certain bacteria and toxins grow inside the body around the tampon. Contributing factors include the kind of tampon (highly absorbent tampons put women at a higher risk) used and how long it is left in the body.

(The kind of tampons Wasser used were Kotex Natural Balance. She is now suing Kimberly-Clark, the company that owns this brand).

Toxic shock syndrome due to tampon use is rare.

“Over the past two decades, the number of cases of menstrual TSS (1 case per 100,000) has steadily declined; this is thought to be due to the withdrawal of highly absorbent tampons from the market,” according to Medscape.

TSS might be rare, but in addition to Wasser’s frightening story there was recently another toxic shock syndrome scare in a young woman that make this issue definitely worth discussing.

Sixteen-year-old Grace Morgan also started to feel very ill after using a tampon. Later that night, she said her liver and heart started to fail. She was put on three different types of antibiotics and was kept in the ICU for two days.

Luckily, she made a full recovery and did not have as bad of an outcome as Wasser did. She did not have to amputate any parts of her body.

“There needs to be more awareness around toxic shock, and the risks that come with using tampons,” Morgan said. “I think it’s something that not a lot of people know about, and so I think that just knowing the symptoms and if you’re on your period and you’re displaying the symptoms just going and seeing a doctor and just not hesitating to do that I think is really important.”

Clearly, it is imperative that you seek medical attention if you are displaying symptoms like the following:

  • High fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash that looks like a sunburn
  • Confusion
  • Muscle aches
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Redness of the eyes, mouth and throat
  • Organ damage such as lung, liver or renal (relating to the kidneys) dysfunction
  • Acute respiratory distress (when fluid collects in the lungs’ air sacs)

The biggest takeaway from both stories is not necessarily avoiding tampons if you are a menstruating woman, but the importance of seeking appropriate medical attention when you are not feeling well.

These young women had similar complaints but two very different outcomes. Wasser lost both of her legs, and Morgan was eventually able to walk away as if nothing had ever happened. Perhaps the fact that Morgan got medical attention soon after she wasn’t feeling well contributed to her recovery.

So don’t try to “tough it out” or try to sleep it off if you are feeling very sick. It is better to be safe than sorry. We have seen incidents like this with the flu.

There are other causes of TSS aside from tampons

“Notably, 50% of cases of TSS are not associated with menstruation. Nonmenstrual cases of TSS usually complicate the use of barrier contraceptives, surgical and postpartum wound infections, burns, cutaneous lesions, osteomyelitis (inflammation of bone caused by infection), and arthritis. Although most cases of TSS occur in women, about 25% of nonmenstrual cases occur in men,” according to another report.

Probably one of the most famous cases of toxic shock syndrome is the death of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.

At the time of his death, 53-year-old Henson was battling a severe case of pneumonia that was caused by the streptococcal bacteria. There are reportedly still some unanswered questions about what exactly caused his death.

But according to this New York Times article, “Dr. David Gelmont, who headed the intensive care team that treated Mr. Henson at New York Hospital, believes he died from toxic shock syndrome produced by the streptococcal bacteria.”

“Streptococci Group A, the type that killed Mr. Henson, also causes scarlet fever and rheumatic fever.”

The article says that antibiotics might have saved Henson’s life “had he come to the hospital a few hours earlier.”

The infection spread and caused multiple organ failure.

So here again, recognizing when you have a serious medical issue is critical.

Additional causes of TSS include viral infections (like the flu or chickenpox), having an immunosuppressive condition (like HIV/AIDS or chronic lung or heart disease) and recreational intravenous drug use.

How can we be proactive?

  • Some reports say avoid superabsorbent tampons. But the incidence of toxic shock syndrome has gone down since some manufacturers took their superabsorbent tampons off the market.
  • Consider using organic feminine care products. You can read more about this here.
  • Keep cuts and surgical incisions clean and change dressings often.
  • Wash hands frequently to prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • If you suspect you have TSS, seek medical attention ASAP. The sooner you seek care, the better your prognosis will likely be.
  • People who have had TSS once can get it again. The infection can resurface. If you are a menstruating woman who has had TSS, it is advised that you do not use tampons.  

Finally, boosting your immunity through proper nutrition is a great way to protect yourself from infections invading and overtaking your body.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.   


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