Tetanus, or lockjaw, is a medical emergency that can be prevented by vaccination. It occurs when a certain type of bacteria enter the bloodstream.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost everyone who develops tetanus has either never received a tetanus vaccine or has not received up to date booster shots.
In this article, we look at how often a person needs a tetanus shot and what types of the vaccine exist.
The following can prevent tetanus:
- diphtheria and tetanus (DT) vaccines
- tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines
- tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccines
- diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccines
However, the protection provided by these vaccines does not last a lifetime.
The CDC recommend that babies and young children receive multiple vaccination rounds and that preteens and teens receive booster shots.
The health authority also suggests that people over 18 years of age receive tetanus vaccines every 10 years, as the shot provides roughly 10 years of protection in most people.
A tetanus shot protects the body from the type of bacteria — Clostridium tetani — that cause tetanus.
However, the protective effects do not last forever, so it is important to receive up-to-date vaccination.
Babies, children, and adolescents
Babies should receive multiple rounds of the DTaP vaccine to ensure adequate protection against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.
The CDC recommend receiving these shots at the ages of:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15–18 months
- 4–6 years
Adolescents aged 11 or 12 should get a Tdap shot to ensure continued immunity against the disease.
Adults who have never received a tetanus vaccination should get a Tdap shot.
In general, the CDC recommend receiving tetanus vaccination every 10 years.
However, research published in Clinical Infectious Diseases points to the possibility that these regular boosters may not be necessary for adults.
A 2016 study that looked into tetanus immunity in 546 adults found that the vaccine provided at least 30 years of protection.
A Tdap vaccine at the start of the third trimester helps protect the unborn baby from whooping cough during early infancy.
DT, DTaP, Td, and Tdap vaccines are safe. However, let the doctor know about any allergies before getting the shot — especially about any reaction to a previous vaccine.
A person may experience side effects, which are typically mild and do not tend to require medical attention.
Mild adverse reactions may include:
- swelling or tenderness at the injection site
- decreased appetite
- a rash
- an upset stomach
- a fever
Who should not get a tetanus shot?
According to the CDC, certain people should not receive DT, DTaP, Td, or Tdap shots, including:
- people who have experienced seizures
- people with any nervous system disorders
- people who have Guillain-Barré syndrome
The DT and DTaP vaccines are not suitable for those aged 7 years or older, while the Td and Tdap vaccines are not intended for younger children or babies.
Anyone who has experienced an adverse reaction to a tetanus shot should not receive another.
In general, it is a good idea for people who are feeling unwell to delay getting a tetanus shot until they have fully recovered.
Tetanus-causing bacteria are common and can enter the body in a variety of ways.
People should get tetanus shots to protect themselves from developing the disease, which can cause:
- high blood pressure
- vocal cord spasms
- extreme muscle spasms that can result in broken bones
- blood clots in the lungs
- difficulty breathing
According to the New York State Department of Health, 10–20% of people who develop tetanus die as a result, even if they have received intensive care.
C. tetani bacteria exist nearly everywhere in the environment, and they can pose a threat when they enter the bloodstream.
Open wounds of any kind, including burns and punctures, are potential entry points. People can also get tetanus through insect bites, dental infections, surgery, and intravenous drug use.
Newborns can get tetanus if they are born in unsanitary conditions.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tetanus symptoms usually develop within 14 days of the infection. However, the incubation period can be 3–21 days.
Tetanus is also known as lockjaw because a common symptom is jaw cramping or tightening, which can limit a person’s ability to eat or breathe.
As the infection progresses, muscle spasms occur, and the abdomen may become rigid.
Other symptoms of tetanus can include:
- a fever
- difficulty swallowing
- an increased heart rate
Healthcare providers can diagnose tetanus with a physical exam.
Treatment depends on the severity of the wound and whether a person has received a tetanus shot. It typically focuses on preventing or managing complications.
A doctor who suspects tetanus will thoroughly cleanse the wound and administer antibiotics to prevent further infection.
A person may also require medication to control muscle spasms and a treatment called human tetanus immune globulin.
There is no cure for tetanus, but it is possible to manage the symptoms.
Tetanus is an emergency. If a person has a wound that may have come into contact with the bacteria, they should receive medical care.
Any wound that has been exposed to a contaminant such as dirt, feces, or manure requires medical attention.
Sufficient wound care is key in preventing tetanus — it is important to disinfect all wounds as soon as possible.
Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that can be fatal. Various vaccines provide immunity against the bacteria, though this protection is temporary.
The bacteria are common in the environment, so there is no herd immunity from tetanus. Anyone who is able to receive the vaccine and stay up to date with boosters should do so.