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Toxic Shock Syndrome


Toxic shock syndrome is an illness that is caused by a bacterium. There are at least two different kinds of bacteria that can cause this severe illness. Toxic shock syndrome causes a sudden severe illness with fever, vomiting, watery diarrhea and muscle aches that can lead to serious problems with a variety of organs in the body. It can be fatal if not treated quickly.


Depending on the bacteria causing illness, it can take from 1-10 days after being infected to start to show signs and symptoms. Symptoms usually start suddenly.

  • Fever (usually higher than 102° F)
  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Muscle ache
  • Low blood pressure causing “shock”
  • Rash (like a sunburn)

One to two weeks later, the following more severe symptoms can happen:

  • Skin peeling (on hands and feet)
  • Problems with kidneys, intestines, liver, blood, breathing, and others


Toxic shock syndrome is caused by bacteria, but toxic shock syndrome itself is not spread person-to-person. Toxic shock syndrome is caused by a toxin substance that some common bacteria produce in the right circumstances. The bacteria that can cause toxic shock syndrome are sometimes spread person to person through breathing, direct contact with open wounds, or eating contaminated food, but toxic shock syndrome only rarely occurs with these infections.

Risk Factors

In 1980, a link between toxic shock syndrome and using tampons was discovered. Since that time, the number of cases caused by tampons has gone down. Toxic shock syndrome is linked most with childbirth, abortions, vaginal devices, surgery infections, and open sores on the skin. In one third of people with toxic shock syndrome, the cause is unknown.


  • Use low absorbency tampons and change them often.
  • Discontinue tampon use immediately if there is a fever, vomiting or diarrhea during menstruation.
  • Follow directions for use of diaphragms or contraceptive sponges.
  • Complete the full course of antibiotics if given for a Staphylococcus or Streptococcus infections.
  • Child care centers should clean toys daily with a disinfectant and discourage the use of play food.
  • People should not come in contact with other people’s wounds or fluids from their wounds.


  • An appropriate antibiotic may be given to treat certain bacterial infections
  • People with toxic shock syndrome may be hospitalized due to the severe symptoms that sometimes occur.
  • Sometimes household contacts of someone with toxic shock syndrome will need throat or other cultures taken to see if they carry the bacteria causing this illness.

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