Have you ever wondered why health care providers often ask when your last tetanus vaccination was?
Tetanus, often called lockjaw, is rare in the United States, but you should take preventive measures because the illness can be fatal if left untreated.
Tetanus results from bacteria known as Clostridium tetani, which generally live in soil but also can be found in feces or saliva, and generally are introduced into the body through a puncture or bite wound.
These bacteria are classified as anaerobes, meaning they grow best and even thrive in low oxygen environments. When deep or penetrating injuries occur — such as stepping on a nail, getting a deep tissue cut with a metal object, burns or fracture/crush injuries where bone is exposed — the bacteria is introduced into the perfect environment for it to multiply and produce toxins. The bacterial toxins are responsible for tetany, the severe muscle spasms characteristic of tetanus infection.
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People with tetanus can develop life-threatening muscle spasms, causing them to be unable to open their mouth (thus the term lockjaw), swallow or breathe. Tetanus also can cause seizures and respiratory arrest.
A tetanus vaccine or booster is the best way to prevent developing tetanus. The vaccine has been around since the 1940s and is considered safe and effective. It is readily available at most health care centers.
Any adult who has not been vaccinated since childhood or who has not had a tetanus booster in the past 10 years should be vaccinated. In particular, those who have suffered a puncture wound, a crushing injury, a cut or a deep tissue wound — especially if exposed to soil, feces or saliva — should receive a tetanus booster as soon as possible after injury, preferably within 48 hours. It is safe to have a tetanus booster even if it has been less than 10 years since you were last vaccinated. If in doubt, vaccinate.
Adolescents and adults are recommended to get at least one dose of the Tdap vaccine, which covers tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) due to the re-emergence of pertussis within the United States. Pertussis can cause serious respiratory illness in children, and vaccination is one of the most effective measures to prevent transmission of the disease. The Td (tetanus, diphtheria) vaccine is recommended for 10-year booster injections in adults who already have received at least one dose of Tdap.