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Preventing Tetanus Infections

Topic Overview

How can I prevent tetanus?

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)(What is a PDF document?). This vaccine is given in a series of five shots starting at age 2 months and ending at ages 4 to 6 years. This is called the primary vaccination series.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)(What is a PDF document?). This is the first booster shot for tetanus and one dose is given to all preteens at age 11 or 12. All teens and adults who never got the Tdap shot need one dose in place of a Td (tetanus and diphtheria) shot. And all pregnant women need a Tdap shot during each pregnancy. Tdap helps protect against whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Td (tetanus and diphtheria) vaccine(What is a PDF document?). 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.

How can I tell if I need a tetanus shot?

To decide if you need a tetanus shot after a wound, 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.

  • Take an over-the-counter medicine for pain and fever, such as acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Because of the risk for Reye syndrome, do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Put an ice pack on the area where the shot was given for 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day for the first 24 to 48 hours. After 48 hours, heat may feel better.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised August 14, 2013

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