What is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome: Overview

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare illness. It's caused by poisons from strep or staph bacteria. Usually these bacteria cause an infection that can be treated easily. But sometimes they cause a serious reaction that can make your organs fail. This can include your lungs, kidneys, and liver.

This illness sometimes happens when a tampon is kept in too long. You can also get it after you get chickenpox, the flu, or skin wounds.

Toxic shock syndrome needs treatment right away in a hospital.

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS)

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare, often life-threatening illness that develops suddenly after a bacterial infection and can rapidly affect several different organ systems, including the lungs, kidneys, and liver. Because toxic shock syndrome progresses quickly, immediate medical treatment is needed.

Toxic shock syndrome can be caused by Streptococcus pyogenes (group A strep) or Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria. Symptoms of TSS usually include high fever, vomiting and diarrhea, a rash that looks like a sunburn, and signs of very low blood pressure and shock, including confusion, fainting, or dizziness.

The most familiar cases of TSS are related to tampon use. But TSS may also be a rare complication of chickenpox, flu, and other respiratory infections and of wounds or injuries to the skin.

What are the symptoms of toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) symptoms get worse quickly and can be deadly within days. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden fever.
  • Signs of shock, including low blood pressure and rapid heartbeat; nausea; vomiting; or fainting or feeling lightheaded, restless, or confused.
  • A rash that looks like a sunburn. The rash can be on several areas of your body or just in certain places, such as the armpits or the groin.
  • Severe pain in an infected wound or injury.

Other TSS symptoms may include:

  • Severe flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, stomach cramps, a headache, or a sore throat.
  • Redness inside the nose and mouth.
  • Pinkeye (conjunctivitis).
  • Scaling, peeling skin, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Having sudden, severe symptoms is one of the most important clues that you may have toxic shock syndrome. If you think you have TSS, get medical care right away.

How is toxic shock syndrome treated?

Treatment for toxic shock syndrome (TSS) almost always takes place in a hospital. Treatment includes:

  • Removing the source of the infection or cleaning the wound.
  • Treating complications, such as shock or liver, kidney, and lung failure.
  • Using antibiotics and other medicines to fight the infection.

Sometimes surgery is needed if TSS developed after surgery or if the infection is destroying the skin and soft tissue (necrotizing fasciitis).

How can you prevent toxic shock syndrome?

You can take steps to prevent toxic shock syndrome (TSS):

  • Keep all skin wounds clean to help prevent infection. This includes cuts, punctures, scrapes, burns, sores from shingles, insect or animal bites, and surgical wounds.
  • Help keep children from scratching chickenpox sores by managing itching.
  • After childbirth, talk to your doctor before you use tampons or some barrier forms of birth control.
  • Follow the directions on package inserts for tampons, diaphragms, and contraceptive sponges.
  • If you have had menstrual TSS, do not use tampons or barrier contraceptives.

How is toxic shock syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors usually diagnose toxic shock syndrome based on your symptoms. Tests can help show whether staph or strep bacteria are causing the infection. Tests you may need include:

  • Blood tests.
  • Tests on body fluids or tissues.
  • A chest X-ray, to look for signs of damage to the lungs.
  • Tests to rule out other infections, such as an infection of the blood (sepsis), Rocky Mountain spotted fever, leptospirosis, and typhoid fever.

How can you care for toxic shock syndrome?

  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Talk to your doctor before you use tampons or some barrier forms of birth control. These include a diaphragm and the cervical cap or sponge. They can increase your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome again.
  • Keep all wounds clean. This includes cuts, burns, sores, and bites.

What causes toxic shock syndrome?

An infection caused by strep or staph bacteria can lead to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). These bacteria are common and usually don't cause problems. But in rare cases, the toxins enter the bloodstream and cause a severe immune reaction. This reaction causes the symptoms of TSS.

  • Toxic shock syndrome caused by strep most often occurs after childbirth, the flu (influenza), chickenpox, surgery, minor skin cuts or wounds, or injuries that cause bruising but may not break the skin.
  • Toxic shock syndrome caused by staph can occur after a tampon is kept in too long (menstrual TSS). Or it can occur after surgery, childbirth, or skin wounds (nonmenstrual TSS).

What is toxic shock syndrome?

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare illness that happens suddenly after an infection. It quickly can harm several different organs, including the lungs, the kidneys, and the liver. And it can be deadly. Since toxic shock syndrome gets worse quickly, it requires medical treatment right away.

Toxic shock syndrome: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a new or worse rash.
  • You have a new or higher fever.
  • You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you might faint.
  • You are short of breath.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.