The number of reported staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome cases has decreased significantly in recent years. Approximately half the cases of staphylococcal TSS reported today are associated with tampon use during menstruation, usually in young women, though TSS also occurs in children, men, and non-menstruating women. In the US in 1997, only five confirmed menstrual-related TSS cases were reported, compared with 814 cases in 1980, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has been estimated that only 1 to 17 out of every 100,000 menstruating females will get TSS.
Although scientists have recognized an association between TSS and tampon use, no firm causal link has been established. Research conducted by the CDC suggested that use of some high absorbency tampons increased the risk of TSS in menstruating women. A few specific tampon designs and high absorbency tampon materials were also found to have some association with increased risk of TSS. These products and materials are no longer used in tampons sold in the U.S. (The materials include polyester, carboxymethylcellulose and polyacrylate). Tampons made with rayon do not appear to have a higher risk of TSS than cotton tampons of similar absorbency.
Toxin production by S. aureus requires a protein-rich environment, which is provided by the flow of menstrual blood, a neutral vaginal pH, which occurs during menstruation, and elevated oxygen levels, which is provided by the tampon that is inserted into the normally anaerobic vaginal environment. Although ulcerations have been reported in women using super absorbent tampons, the link to menstrual TSS, if any, is unclear. The toxin implicated in menstrual TSS is capable of entering the bloodstream by crossing the vaginal wall in the absence of ulcerations. Women may avoid problems by choosing a tampon with the minimum absorbency needed to control menstrual flow and using tampons only during active menstruation. Alternately, a woman may choose to use a different kind of menstrual product that may eliminate or reduce the risk of TSS, such as sanitary napkins or a menstrual cup.
The term toxic shock syndrome was first used in 1978 by a Denver pediatrician, Dr. J.K. Todd, to describe the staphylococcal illness in three boys and four girls aged 8-17 years. Even though S. aureus was isolated from mucosal sites from the patients, bacteria could not be isolated from the blood, cerebrospinal fluid, or urine, raising suspicion that a toxin was involved. The authors of the study noted that reports of similar staphylococcal illnesses had appeared occasionally as far back as 1927. Most notably, the authors at the time failed to consider the possibility of a connection between toxic shock syndrome and tampon use, as three of the girls who were menstruating when the illness developed were using tampons.
Following a controversial period of test marketing in Rochester, New York and Fort Wayne, Indiana, in August 1978 Procter and Gamble introduced superabsorbent Rely tampons to the United States market in response to women's demands for tampons that could contain an entire menstrual flow without leaking or replacement. Rely used carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and compressed beads of polyester for absorption. This tampon design could absorb nearly 20 times its own weight in fluid. Further, the tampon would "blossom" into a cup shape in the vagina in order to hold menstrual fluids.
In January 1980, epidemiologists in Wisconsin and Minnesota reported the appearance of TSS, mostly in menstruating women, to the CDC. S. aureus was successfully cultured from most of the women. A CDC task force investigated the epidemic as the number of reported cases rose throughout the summer of 1980, accompanied by widespread publicity. In September 1980, the CDC reported that users of Rely were at increased risk for developing TSS.
On September 22, 1980, Procter and Gamble recalled Rely following release of the CDC report. As part of the voluntary recall, Procter and Gamble entered into a consent agreement with the FDA "providing for a program for notification to consumers and retrieval of the product from the market". However, it was clear to other investigators that Rely was not the only culprit. Other regions of the United States saw increases of menstrual TSS before Rely was introduced. It was shown later that higher absorbency of tampons was associated with an increased risk for TSS, regardless of the chemical composition or the brand of the tampon. The sole exception was Rely, for which the risk for TSS was still higher when corrected for its absorbency. The ability of carboxymethylcellulose to filter the S. aureus toxin that causes TSS may account for the increased risk associated with Rely.
By the end of 1980, the number of TSS cases reported to the CDC began to decline. The reduced incidence was attributed not only to the removal of Rely from the market, but also from the diminished use of all tampon brands. According to the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, 942 women were diagnosed with tampon-related TSS in the USA from March 1980 to March 1981, 40 of whom died.
In contrast, TSLS is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, and it typically presents in people with pre-existing skin infections with the bacteria. These individuals often experience severe pain at the site of the skin infection, followed by rapid progression of symptoms as described above for TSS. In contrast to TSS caused by Staphylococcus, Streptococcal TSS less often involves a sunburn-rash.
Diagnosis of TSS and TSLS are strictly based on CDC criteria:
With proper treatment, patients usually recover in two to three weeks. The condition, however, can be fatal within hours. Sometimes patients are admitted to the intensive care unit for supportive care in case of multiple organ failure.