Here's What Toxic Shock Syndrome Actually Is—And Ways to Help Prevent Infection

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Periods happen, it's a normal part of our lives. But we all know what it feels like when that time of the month is around the corner: The pain, the discomfort, and uncomfortable symptoms. For some, those symptoms can surpass common period problems. We've all heard of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), we've been reading about it on our tampon boxes for as long as we've been menstruating. We've been warned about it in health class. But, a lot of us have also almost forgotten about it. The fact is, TSS is rare, but it's also life-threatening. This condition can affect anyone, so it’s important to be aware of the causes and symptoms of the infection, as well as the ways to treat and prevent it. Below, find all the information you need to better understand Toxic Shock Syndrome.

What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?

Toxic Shock Syndrome is caused by toxins produced by certain types of staphylococcus bacteria, and it causes fevers, shock, and organ issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that TSS affects an average of one in 100,000 people in the U.S., but this doesn’t mean it's any less severe—in fact, it can be deadly.

What Triggers Toxic Shock Syndrome?

This still remains largely unknown, but experts suggest the staphylococcus bacteria (which causes the infection) already exist on the skin and other parts of the body. According to Dr. Christian Gonzalez, a naturopathic doctor, non-toxic living expert, and host of the health podcast Heal Thyself, given the right environment, staphylococcus bacteria may create conditions that cause the complication. It’s a rare infection, but a person who does not practice good menstrual and physical hygiene is at a higher risk of contracting it.

It is common knowledge that Toxic Shock Syndrome mostly occurs when you leaves in a tampon for too long. Ann Peters, a gynecologist at the Institute for Gynecologic Care says the tampon grows bacteria which can release toxins into the bloodstream. However, you can also contract the infection through burns, cuts, and other skin infections, according to the US National Library of Medicine. In fact, there are fewer cases of toxic shock syndrome linked to tampon usage than other factors.

Who Is Affected?

The earliest cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome were discovered mainly in women, but as time went on, it was observed the condition also affects men, children, and postmenopausal women. Some symptoms include low blood pressure, a sudden high fever, headaches, seizures, muscle aches, and vomiting. It could also cause a sunburn-like rash on your palms and the soles of your feet.

The Best Options for Prevention

Most importantly, you should get in touch with a doctor as soon as you notice signs or symptoms of an infection. That said, there are several nutritional and lifestyle practices that can keep your immune system well. By incorporating them into your routine, you can work to prevent a recurring infection.

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Maintain Good Personal Hygiene

If you suspect you are exhibiting signs of TSS, especially if you are menstruating and using tampons or menstrual cups, it's critical to seek immediate medical attention. According to Burris, intravenous antibiotics can be critical in saving your life. None of these remedies should serve as a substitute for treatment by a healthcare professional. However, you can also reduce the risk of toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampons every four hours at least, and by washing your hands before inserting a tampon and after taking it out. “Maintaining good personal hygiene during your period is the safest way to prevent any kind of infection,” says Burris.

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Amp Up Your Vitamin D Levels

According to Kristen Burris, a menopause and infertility specialist at Eagle Acupuncture, preventing any potential infection can only be effective when you already have adequate vitamins and minerals in your body to optimize your immune system. “Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with the inability to fight infections, and should be addressed immediately,” she says. 

Increasing your vitamin D intake is a great way to keep the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome out. However, finding the optimal level is key. “Most patients can take 1000 IU with no side effects and within several months, they have adequate levels,” says Burris. “However, if your vitamin D levels are critically low, you may need to take 5000 IU daily until your levels return to normal (which is confirmed by lab testing)."

Foods that have high vitamin D content include mushrooms, salmon, and cod liver oil. Sunlight is also a great source of this all-important vitamin, so even if you’re inside, you can put on some sunscreen and crack open a window to soak up some rays.

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Enrich Your Body with Natural Probiotics

Probiotics also provide a healthy boost to your immune system. Studies have shown that an imbalance of internal bacteria is linked to several infections, like Toxic Shock Syndrome. Probiotics help in maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in the body, and generally improve your immune function.

Even if you have doubts about taking probiotic supplements, you still can get a healthy balance of bacteria. “The easiest way to incorporate probiotics into your diet is by consuming foods like yogurt, kefir, raw cheeses, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso added to soup or stir-fried foods,” she says.

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Use Organic Menstrual Products

While Toxic Shock Syndrome does not affect only women, it’s important to take proper care of your menstrual health in order to avoid getting an infection from the products you use.

Gonzalez advises women who have been treated for Toxic Shock Syndrome one or more times should consult a doctor to be sure that it’s safe to use a tampon again, even an organic one. If you’re looking for other options, there's sanitary pads and menstrual cups free of fragrance, dioxins, chlorine, and allergens, according to Gonzalez. “You should check if the product meets the certification for Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), to ensure that you’re getting the highest quality of organic cotton,” he adds. Brands like The Honey Pot Company and Cora also manufacture products through the use of sustainable and eco-friendly practices, so you can go to sleep knowing that your menstrual products are safe, both for you and for the planet.

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Choose Food with Essential Minerals

Essential minerals including zinc and magnesium are also effective in boosting your immune system and fighting bacterial infections. According to Kelly Bay, a clinical specialist, “Zinc plays a significant role in adaptive and innate immune responses. It also protects the body from inflammation and tissue damage caused by infections.”

Most people consume supplements, but Burris suggests seeds as a good source of essential minerals. “Seeds you can incorporate into your daily diet include hemp, pumpkin and flax seeds,” she says. “These are easily added to the top of your probiotic yogurt for a healthy start to your morning routine.” 

Other zinc-rich foods include meat, poultry, shellfish, and nuts like peanuts, pine nuts, cashews, and almonds. "Dairy, legumes and dark chocolate have smaller amounts of absorbable zinc, but in a well-balanced diet, it all adds up,” she adds.

Since many foods with high mineral content are not plant-based, so it is advised vegetarians and vegans take up to 50 percent more than the recommended mineral intake in order to obtain optimum results. 

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