Preventing Tetanus Infections

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Preventing Tetanus Infections

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How can I prevent tetanus?

Tetanus (lockjaw) infections are very rare in the United States and Canada. You can help prevent tetanus by having all of the suggested tetanus shots (immunizations). There are three different types of tetanus shots.

  • Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP). The first series of childhood shots are given beginning at age 2 months and ending at 18 months. A fifth shot, sometimes called a booster, is given between ages 4 and 6 years.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis). This booster shot for tetanus is suggested for children between ages 14 and 16 years who have had the DTaP vaccination series. Adults ages 19 to 64 should have one dose of this booster shot instead of Td (tetanus and diphtheria) vaccine to prevent whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Td (tetanus and diphtheria) vaccine. This vaccine is given as a booster shot every 10 years.

Why is it important to prevent tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The tetanus bacteria get in a wound through a break in the skin or mucous membrane. A cut, puncture wound, deep scrape, deep burn, or any injury that breaks the skin or mucous membrane are called wounds.

The bacteria make a toxin, or poison, that causes severe muscle spasms and seizures. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because muscle spasms in your jaw make it hard to open your mouth. This makes it hard to swallow or breathe. Tetanus can be very dangerous and can cause death. The best way to prevent the disease is to have a tetanus shot if you need one.

How can I tell if I need a tetanus shot?

To decide if you need a tetanus shot, first decide if the object that caused the wound was dirty or clean. An object is dirty if it has dirt, soil, spit, or feces on it. A clean object does not have dirt, soil, spit, or feces on it.

You will need a tetanus shot if:

  • Your wound was caused by something that was clean and your last tetanus shot was longer than 10 years ago.
  • Your wound was caused by something that was dirty and your last tetanus shot was longer than 5 years ago.
  • You are not sure if your wound was caused by something clean or dirty and your last tetanus shot was longer than 5 years ago.
  • You are not sure when you had your last tetanus shot.
  • You did not get the first series of tetanus shots (primary vaccination series).

If you need a tetanus shot, call your doctor to arrange for a shot.

Some people may need tetanus immunoglobulin (IG) for a wound that is at high risk for developing tetanus. The immunoglobulin is usually only needed if you have not (or do not know if you have) completed the tetanus primary vaccination series.

What should I do if I have a reaction to a tetanus shot?

If you have a reaction to a tetanus shot, your symptoms may include warmth, swelling, redness at the site where the shot was given or a fever.

Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.

Talk to your doctor before you give medicine to reduce a fever in a baby who is 3 months of age or younger. This is to make sure a young baby's fever is not a sign of a serious illness. The exception is if your baby has just had an immunization. Fevers sometimes occur as a reaction to immunizations. After immunizations, you can give your baby medicine to reduce a fever.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised August 5, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.