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Tetanus Shots

What are tetanus shots?

Tetanus shots protect you against the disease called tetanus. This disease is rare but it can be fatal. It is caused by a poison (toxin) made by bacteria. These bacteria live everywhere in the outdoors, especially in soil. The bacteria can get into your body through a break in the skin, such as a cut. The poison made by the bacteria irritates the nerves and causes muscle spasms you cannot control.

Tetanus is also called lockjaw because the most common symptom is tightening of the jaw muscles caused by spasms of the neck and jaw muscles.

Why do I need a tetanus shot?

There is no antibiotic treatment for tetanus, so you need to have the shot for protection against the infection. There are about 100 cases of tetanus each year in the US. Of all people who get tetanus in the US, about 10 to 20% die.

It is impossible to avoid the cuts and wounds that commonly occur during everyday life. The tetanus bacteria can enter the body through these breaks in the skin and cause a very serious infection. For this reason, it is very important to keep your tetanus shots up to date.

When should I get a tetanus shot?

Most people get their first tetanus shots in childhood. The vaccine in the shots given to young children is called DTaP. It protects against diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) as well as tetanus.

  • If you did not get all of the scheduled tetanus shots when you were a child, you should get the 3-shot series of tetanus vaccine. Two of the shots will be the Td vaccine, and one should be the new Tdap vaccine for adults. The Td shot protects against tetanus and diphtheria. The Tdap shot protects against pertussis as well.
  • You need a tetanus booster shot at least every 10 years. If you are under 65 and have never had the Tdap vaccine, your next booster shot should be Tdap. Booster shots after that will use the Td vaccine.

Whenever you have a cut, animal bite, or puncture wound, check to see when you last had a booster shot. Get another shot as soon as possible after the injury if it has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot or you do not know when you last had a tetanus shot. This is especially important if the wound is dirty or involves soil or rusty metal. Try to get the shot the same day as the injury if possible. The bacteria grow quickly if they become trapped in a wound and will make the poison if you are not immunized.

One shot of Tdap is recommended for adults because there have been whooping cough (pertussis) outbreaks over the past several years. Babies are most susceptible to complications from whooping cough, so Tdap is especially recommended for adults caring for children, even if it has been less than 10 years since their last booster shot. If you are 65 or older, this new vaccine has not yet been approved for your age.

What other things should I know about tetanus shots?

  • You can usually get a tetanus shot at your healthcare provider's office or at most local health departments.
  • Side effects from the shot can include temporary soreness and swelling in the arm where you got the shot. Fever is rare.
  • Do not get the shot if you have a fever of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher. However, you can have the shot if you have a mild cold or other minor illness. If you are sick, you might want to discuss your illness with your healthcare provider before getting the shot.
  • If you are allergic to thimerosal (a preservative), or if you have had an allergic reaction to a previous tetanus shot, tell your healthcare provider. Both Td and Tdap shots are also available without thimerosal. If you have been diagnosed with thimerosal allergy, be sure you are getting a thimerosal-free vaccine.
  • Keep track of when you get booster shots. You should not have the shot more often than every 5 to 10 years because you could become allergic to the vaccine. Then it would be risky for you to have any more shots and you would no longer be protected against tetanus.

You can get more information from your healthcare provider or local health department.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File alli4942.htm Release 13/2010

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