You’ve probably heard of—and received—a tetanus shot, but many of us don’t know what tetanus actually is. Tetanus is a serious, but fortunately rare condition caused by bacteria called Clostridium Tetani. The bacteria are often found in soil and the manure of animals like horses and cows. If it enters the body through a wound, it can quickly multiply and release a neurotoxin, which affects the nerves and causes reactions such as muscle stiffness and spasms. Clostridium Tetani can get into the body through cuts and wounds, burns, animal bites, body piercings, injections, tattoos and eye injuries, but it is most likely to invade through deep wounds that contain dirt and foreign objects. Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person.
In countries with tetanus vaccination programs, such as the U.S., tetanus is rare. Only about 50 cases are reported every year in the United States. However, the disease is much more common in developing countries.
Here is some information on the symptoms of tetanus, how to prevent it and what to do if you are worried about contracting it.
- Stiffness in your jaw muscles (often referred to as “lockjaw”), which can make it difficult to open your mouth
- Stiffness or pain in the neck, shoulder, or back muscles
- Painful muscle spasms that make breathing and swallowing difficult
- Spasms in the abdomen, upper arms, and thighs
- Sever fever of 100.4F (38C) or above
- Sweating and rapid heartbeat.
If symptoms aren’t treated, it can worsen over the course of hours and days. In severe cases, it’s possible to experience life-threatening problems such as cardiac arrest and suffocation.
There are two general ways to prevent tetanus:
1. Tetanus vaccination
2. Receiving a shot after possible exposure (post-exposure tetanus prophylaxis)
Most kids in the U.S. get the tetanus immunization as part of their Dtap (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) vaccinations. Children usually receive four doses of Tdap before they are 2 years old, and a booster dose between 4 and 6 years of age. Then, a Tdap booster is recommended at 11 or 12 (or later if it was missed). Adults aren’t off the hook: they should get a booster tetanus and diphtheria booster every 10 years. The Tdap vaccine is also recommended for pregnant women during the second half of their pregnancy regardless of if or when they received their previous vaccine.
If you are injured, you may be given a post-exposure tetanus prophylaxis, depending on the number of years since the patient’s last booster, the total number of tetanus vaccinations the person has received, and the type of wound. It’s important to clean and dress a skin wound, particularly if it’s a deep puncture or one that may be contaminated with soil, feces, or saliva.
When to go to the doctor
Go to your local urgent care center in the following cases:
- The wound is deep
- The wound contains dirt or foreign objects
- You haven’t been fully vaccinated against tetanus
- You’re not sure if you’ve been fully vaccinated against tetanus
If the doctor thinks you could develop tetanus, but aren’t showing any symptoms yet, they will clean the wounds and inject you with tetanus immunoglobulin. They may also give you a tetanus vaccine if you haven’t been fully vaccinated.
Is a tetanus shot necessary?
If your child has suffered a cut, burn, animal bite, or eye injury, it may be a good idea to take him to urgent care—especially if the wound is deep and there is dirt or foreign objects inside. Take him or her to urgent care immediately if he or she is exhibiting symptoms such as stiffness in the jaw muscles, muscle spasms, or difficulty breathing and swallowing. If your child has gotten all of their immunizations and boosters, however, he or she will have good protection against tetanus even if he or she require treatment for an injury.