The YouTube Video About Toxic Shock Syndrome I Can’t Stop Thinking About

13.11.17

I watched a YouTube video about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) and I can’t stop thinking about it.

It keeps crawling back into my mind when I’m suppose to be doing other things like replying to emails or being present at yoga. The video was featured on the StyleLikeU YouTube channel – which if you’re not familiar with you should be because it’s wonderful. The channel was founded by mother-daughter duo Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, and it explores how true style is the result of radical self-acceptance. It invites well-known female models, activists and artists to come into a studio, sit on a stool, and have an honest conversation with the camera about self-love and beauty while simultaneously removing items of clothing. The idea is to show audiences that style has nothing to do with the clothes we wear.

On this particular episode a model comes into the studio, Lauren Wasser. She’s super tall, super skinny and beautiful in that non-conventional-must-be-a-model kind of way. A few minutes into the video you realise she has a prosthetic leg, and about thirty seconds after that you learn why.

The short version of Lauren’s harrowing story is that at 24 year’s old, while on her period, Lauren changed her tampon using the same brand she had used for eleven years. Twenty four hours later she was found face down in her apartment, unresponsive, with failing kidneys. When she arrived at the hospital an infection specialist asked if she had a tampon in. As soon as the tampon was removed Lauren began to stabilise and they were able to put her in an induced coma. Her tampon tested positive for Toxic Shock Syndrome. By the time she was diagnosed her feet had turned black with gangrene and her lower right leg was amputated.

So now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Not because I’m scared it will happen to me; I understand that I’m not at risk of contracting TSS because I have a Mirena, which means I essentially don’t get a period and therefore don’t need to use sanitary items. I can’t stop thinking about it because it feels like this is the first time I’m hearing about Toxic Shock Syndrome. And I mean really hearing about it. Not as simply a “possible side effect” on a neatly folded piece of paper tucked inside a tampon box. A piece of paper so small and insignificant that surely tampon companies knew we would never read it because A) we were adolescent teens with short attention spans and B) we were pretty uncomfortable with this new female byproduct and wanted to minimise any and all public-period-exposure.

Toxic Shock Syndrome is a serious bacterial infection. When untreated, TSS can lead to shock, renal failure and even death. Tampons do not cause TSS per say, but when a tampon is left inside a woman for too long it essentially becomes a welcoming environment for bacteria to flourish and as the bacteria multiply they can release toxins into your system. The other concern is the synthetic ingredients used to make tampons. The synthetic fibres, along with a tampon’s absorbency, can create an ideal environment for the bacteria that causes TSS.

Let me be clear, I’m not trying to scare you. The chances of actually contracting TSS are incredibly rare and less than half of all TSS incidents involve tampons. In addition to that, a person must already have Staphylococcus aureus present in his or her body to contract TSS and only about 20 percent of the general population carries the bacteria. But according to U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who has spent her entire career lobbying for comprehensive research and data on feminine hygiene products, there is “no research that unequivocally declares these feminine hygiene products safe, and independent studies by women’s health organizations have found chemicals of concern like dioxin, carcinogens and reproductive toxins present in tampons and pads.”

In some ways this lack of information isn’t surprising, women’s health has been largely under-represented and overlooked throughout history. Just yesterday I watched a heartbreaking interview with a Kiwi couple who had two stillborn daughters, and the mother was advocating for there to be more open conversations about this universal experience, saying that it is still considered “taboo”.

So now I wonder, if we had been educated more thoroughly as teenagers about the possible side effects of products like tampons and pads, would we have made different choices? Would we have still chosen to use tampons? Would we have used them differently? And if we decided we didn’t want to use them at all, what other options are out there?

It seems like a lot of effort goes into getting girls onto birth control the moment we get our periods, but not as much care is put into the physical act of having a period each month. Like I said, this isn’t meant to be a scare tactic. But if you are a female and you have a period, you have the right to ask these questions.

The average woman will use over 16,800 tampons during the course of her lifetime. I think we deserve to know what it actually is that we’re consuming.


Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club