- Model Lauren Wasser lost her right leg to tampon-related toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
- Wasser recently revealed that she will likely have her left leg amputated, too.
- She wants to warn women about the dangers of TSS.
- TSS is a serious medical emergency — but it’s also very rare.
- There are steps you can take to reduce your risk, too.
Model Lauren Wasser was a normal, healthy 24-year-old when she was suddenly struck down by a high fever during her period. She was found unconscious in her apartment and rushed to a hospital. Wasser didn’t know it at the time, but she’d developed toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, the life-threatening condition that’s sometimes associated with tampon use.
Doctors were able to save her life, but complications led to the amputation of her right leg and her left toes. Last month, and roughly five years after her TSS episode in 2012, Wasser revealed that she’ll likely lose her left leg, too.
“I’m in daily excruciating pain,” Wasser wrote in an open editorial for InStyle.com on November 29. “I have a golden [prosthetic] leg that I am completely proud of, but my left foot that has an open ulcer, no heel, and no toes […] In a few months, I’m inevitably going to have my other leg amputated.”
In a new interview with People published on December 29, 2017, Wasser elaborated on the second amputation, explaining that that it will help her live and move without that constant pain.
“When I see ads for tampons, it’s always a woman running on the beach or swimming in the ocean […] I haven’t been able to do any of those things in five years. So much of my life has been taken because of this,” she told People. “It’s a hard decision, but my only way to freedom.”
Wasser’s story might make you feel like tossing every tampon you own into the nearest trash can, and that makes sense — losing limbs is a painful and frightening prospect. But it’s important to put Wasser’s individual experience into a bigger context: TSS is real and serious, but it’s also rare.
Here’s what everyone should know about it.
TSS is not just linked to tampons.
TSS happens when certain types of bacteria produce a really dangerous toxin, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). This toxin can send the body into shock and make our vital organs fail, which is what makes TSS life-threatening. It can be treated, but it can also be fatal in up to 50% of cases, the NIH says.
Often, the bacteria that can lead to TSS can live on our bodies without causing any issues, the Cleveland Clinic explains. But under certain conditions, these bacteria can spread out of control and start producing toxins.
Prolonged tampon use may create such conditions. Bloody tampons left in place for a long time can be an “excellent petri dish” for harmful bacteria, gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter explained on her blog. That bacteria may grow on tampons and become trapped in the vagina. Tampons might also cause tiny cuts in the vagina, allowing TSS toxins to enter your blood.
But there are non-menstrual cases of TSS, too. It can happen after childbirth, when using certain birth control devices like a diaphragm, and in people who have burns, post-surgery wounds, and other inflammatory conditions, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
It’s real, but it’s rare.
Today, TSS simply isn’t that common, but a few decades ago, things were different. Back the 1970s, Proctor & Gamble developed a new, super-absorbent tampon called Rely. A few years after it hit the market, there was an alarming outbreak of TSS.
Later, researchers found found the risk of getting TSS was “substantially greater” in women who had used Rely, likely because the tampons’ design and materials — including a polyester foam — created an environment that was much too friendly for the bacteria that can lead to TSS. Rely tampons were recalled and cases of TSS started to decline. You can see how quickly it happened with this chart from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: Today, tampon use is linked to less than half of call TSS cases, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the disease is very rare overall. The Cleveland Clinic reports that the incidence of period-related TSS is roughly one case per 100000 menstruating women.
That’s not zero — but it is a really small number.
There are a few simple habits that can help prevent TSS, according to the Cleveland Clinic. First, use tampons with the lowest absorbency required for your flow. (In other words: Skip super-plus tampons on a day when you’re only spotting.) Try to alternate using tampons and pads when you can, and when you do use tampons, change them every four to eight hours. Don’t use tampons when you don’t have your period.
And finally, the Cleveland Clinic notes, women who’ve already had TSS are at higher risk of getting it again and should avoid tampons altogether.
You should always look out for the signs of TSS.
What happened to Wasser isn’t the norm for all women who use tampons. But it’s a good reminder that TSS is a really big deal when it does happen.
The NIH says the symptoms of TSS include confusion; diarrhea; feeling generally sick; headaches; fever and/or chills; muscle aches; nausea and vomiting; red eyes, mouth, or throat; and a red rash that looks like a sunburn and peels after 1 or 2 weeks. Get immediate medical help if you develop a fever or rash and feel ill after using a tampon.