Toxic shock syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but very serious illness, caused by a Staphylococcus (aureus) bacterial infection entering the blood stream.


Staphylococcus aureus is a common type of bacteria that lives on the skin. It is usually harmless, but it can cause a wide range of infections if it enters the bloodstream. Toxic shock syndrome may be serious enough to cause damage to vital organs.

TSS is rare, and can affect both men and women, but it is often associated with the incorrect use of tampons. That’s because tampons may contain very small amounts of bacteria that are normally in the air or on the skin.

Other risk factors include:

  • recent childbirth, miscarriage or abortion, and the use of birth control devices such as the diaphragm or contraceptive sponges
  • foreign bodies, including nasal packing to stop nosebleeds and wound packing after surgery
  • wound infection after surgery.


Symptoms can develop very quickly and may initially feel similar to the flu.

If you’re feeling ill, with any of the following symptoms, the most important thing is to seek medical attention – especially if you feel ill during or soon after your period or have had recent surgery.

  • A headache and muscle weakness/pains
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • A rash similar to sunburn
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • A high fever and chills.

Don’t forget to tell your doctor if you’ve been using tampons.

Need help? You can call Healthline for free on 0800 611 116 or see your family doctor.


If you think you could have toxic shock syndrome, stop using tampons immediately and ring Healthline or contact your family doctor.

Treatment for TSS includes:

  • medication (antibiotics) to kill the infection, given in hospital
  • fluids given through a drip (intravenously) to increase blood pressure and treat dehydration.

Treatment is usually successful if detected early.


Luckily, there are ways to avoid getting TSS – and they’re all straight forward.

For women using tampons

  • Wash your hands before and after you change your tampon.
  • Only use tampons when you are menstruating.
  • Only use one tampon at a time.
  • Don’t force the tampon to fit.
  • Use the lowest absorbency tampon necessary to suit your flow.
  • Change your tampon regularly – every 8 hours at the very least.
  • Take your tampon out when you go to sleep.
  • Use the tampon immediately after you unwrap it and don’t handle the tampon more than necessary – if packing is broken throw them away
  • Don’t forget to remove the last tampon used at the end of your period.

For everyone

  • Wash you hands regularly.
  • Take care of wounds properly – seek medical advice if you are not sure what to do.
Back to top