Two weeks ago, I bolted upright in bed. Had I taken my tampon out?! I leapt from under the covers and into the bathroom, terrified of wasting a single second. I was 99 percent sure it had indeed been removed but the phantom specter of toxic shock syndrome (TSS)—the rare disease every teen magazine warned me I would get if I left a tampon in for too long—turned that one percent of uncertainty into an endless loop of worst-case scenarios.
Nearly two decades after I first heard about it, the fear of TSS is still, literally, keeping me up at night.
In the 1990s and early aughts, it felt like every teen magazine you picked up had a terrifying story about TSS that made tampons feel like ticking time-bombs. There were dozens of Jamie-not-her-real-names who left a tampon in too long and were left with horrifying health consequences: trips to the hospital, amputations, brushes with death. It’s left just about every menstruating Millennial woman I know with tampon anxiety, living in fear of leaving it in too long.
“I felt followed around by this fear of TSS,” says Casey Lewis, the writer behind teen magazine archive account @ThankYouAtoosa. “It must have shaped all of our personal period trauma, and it was solely because of teen magazines. It’s not like gynos were threatening you, or telling you about it. It’s not like teachers were warning you. It’s certainly not like a classmate had this.”
As an adult, you almost never hear about TSS. Probably because it’s classified as a rare disease. It only occurs in a handful of women—one in 100,000, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders—per year. To put that in perspective, in 2005 when TSS stories were common, Chlamydia was around 500 times more common in women than TSS. And yet for years, I was much more convinced that something terrible would happen to me if I forgot to take out a tampon rather than if I forgot to use a condom.
To be clear, TSS is serious. It can be fatal, is most common in menstruating women (though men can get the bacterial infection too), and you should definitely always follow tampon protocol if you’re going to use one. But it’s interesting that so much space on the pages of the magazines of our youth was devoted to tales of a relatively rare condition.
Where was the constant drumbeat of catastrophic stories about STDs causing infertility? Cervical cancer? Endometriosis? “I never remember endometriosis being mentioned in a teen magazine. If you had a lot of period pain, I never remember reading that it could be anything other than just PMS—you just had to deal with it,” Lewis says. “Of all the things that we could have read about as teenage girls that were risks like cancer, diabetes or so many other things, those things were covered far less than TSS. It’s just wild.”
So why was such a disproportionate amount of our adolescent fears (and adult anxieties) spent on an infection that was pretty unlikely to impact our lives? “I think, honestly, girls and their period, it’s just a thing,” says Susan Schultz, the former editor-in-chief of CosmoGirl from 2003 to 2008. “I mean, you get your period every month. As a health issue, I think maybe it seems everybody is susceptible [to TSS], right? Everybody could be the next victim type of thing.” Maybe endometriosis and cancer felt too abstract to stick in our teenage minds. TSS felt as real as the tampon stashed in your locker. “Pretty much any menstruating young woman would have a fear of TSS just by virtue of the fact that, yes, you could get it,” says Schultz.
Or the answer might simply be that TSS stories made for compelling content—it was clickbait for the print age.
“They were trying to get you to pick up a magazine on the newsstand with your mom, or whatever,” says Lewis. Selling magazines is, you know, pretty important when you work in media but “TSS was something that felt sensational—which is really icky when you think about it,” Lewis says.