Anyone who's ever had their period has probably had the experience of buying a pack of Playtex Gentle Glide or Kotex maxi pads and watching as your purchase is emphatically double-bagged by the cashier at your local drugstore. There's this weirdly enduring idea that feminine hygiene products should be treated like panty lines: invisible, hidden.
But while we're worried about keeping our plastic-wrapped applicators out of sight, we should probably be giving some thought to what's actually in them. One 24-year-old model with a thriving career found out the hard way when her leg had to be amputated.
Blond, athletic Lauren Wasser was living in Santa Monica, California, and juggling modeling with her love for basketball, cycling and improv when she came down with flu-like symptoms one day in October 2012. She recounted to Vice how she ran out to buy tampons the same day and then fell into a deep sleep. Within two days, her mom had contacted a friend of Lauren's and police, who found the model on the floor of her apartment running a fever of 107 degrees, mere minutes from death.
While doctors couldn't seem to figure out what was causing the burning sensation in her legs and feet, an infectious disease specialist immediately suspected the rare but life-threatening Toxic Shock Syndrome. That name, or TSS for short, will be vaguely familiar to anyone who's ever scanned the side of a tampon box but it's admittedly one of those things that many women probably assume won't affect them.
But for Lauren, Toxic Shock Syndrome -- a complication of certain bacterial infections -- eventually forced doctors to perform "a right-leg below-the-knee amputation." Gangrene had crept in on her left foot as well, so while doctors managed to save the leg, Lauren did lose her toes. She told the "Today" show in an interview this week that she still can't bear to look at a tampon commercial.
"I was this girl—and then all of a sudden I don't have a leg, I'm in a wheelchair, I have half a foot, I can't even walk to the bathroom," Lauren told Vice. "I'm in a bed, I can't move, and I felt like those four walls were my prison."
It would be a long time before Lauren not only healed but rallied emotionally. Now she wants to help spread awareness to young girls about the possible dangers of tampon use. As Dr. Philip M. Tierno of NYU School of Medicine told Vice: TSS can occur in women who have no or very low antibody to the toxin associated with the disease who then use tampons made with synthetic ingredients like rayon or combinations of natural and synthetic materials. "Therefore the synthetic ingredients of a tampon are a problem," he added, "whereas 100 percent cotton tampons provide the lowest risk, if any risk at all."
Brands like Lola are now hitting the market, touting themselves as 100% cotton and natural alternatives. Menstrual cups have also been gaining in popularity. The best bet is to talk to your doctor, gynecologist or other women's health professional about potential risks and the options available.