Everyone knows that if you step on a rusty nail, you should get a tetanus shot. But people don’t realize that tetanus can be contracted in other ways. The fact is, that any puncture wound, especially a deep one, can be infected with tetanus. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you should make sure that your Tetanus immunization is up-to-date. Getting a booster after an injury is far less effective than being up to date beforehand.
Adults aged 50 years or older account for 70% of Tetanus cases. The mortality rate for the disease is 25% in the United States and 50% worldwide, where Tetanus cases amongst newborns is devastatingly common. Natural immunity to the disease is rare. This is why it is so important for you to get a tetanus booster every 10 years.
Tetanus bacteria are found everywhere in the environment. They live in the soil, in animal feces, and animal intestines. Animal scratches and bites, burns, frostbite, splinters, thorn punctures, dental infections, in fact any injury where oxygen cannot reach the injured tissues, can provide a breeding ground for tetanus.
Tetanus or lockjaw, as it is also known, is a disease of the central nervous system, producing muscle stiffness, rigidity, and eventually convulsive muscle spasms. Difficulty swallowing, stiff necks, arms, and legs, fever and headache may also occur. As the disease progresses, victims may develop a fixed smile or facial expressions due to muscle spasms. Spasms of the diaphragm and ribs make breathing difficult, often requiring mechanical ventilation. The back muscles may become rigid and violent convulsions can occur, strong enough to break bones. The famous picture Opisthotonus, above, painted by Sir Charles Bell, shows what late stage Tetanus looks like.
The bacteria that cause Tetanus are in the same family as botulism and gangrene and thrive in environments without any oxygen – like under your skin. They form spores which are extremely tough to kill and highly resistant to heat and the usual first-aid antiseptics.
Vaccination with Tetanus vaccine is virtually 100 percent effective in preventing Tetanus and the rate of side effects is very low. Adult vaccination boosters should be received every 10 years as antibody levels decrease over time. People who receive a serious wound often receive an additional vaccination if their last booster was over 5 years ago.
For more information about Tetanus and Tetanus Vaccination, see:
Written 2009/ Updated 2015.