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    Although you may have heard of tetanus shots, and maybe even received several of them as a child, you might not know why they're so important. Because tetanus vaccinations can be life-saving, it's essential to understand exactly what they are, how they work and when you need to get one.


    So, what is a tetanus shot exactly? Read on to learn all about the tetanus infection and the shot that can help prevent severe complications for both adults and children.


    Tetanus Bacteria and Transmission

    A seemingly endless variety of bacteria exist in the world — and they all have different names, are found in different places and have different impacts on our body and health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tetanus, often known as lockjaw, is an infection caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria. These bacteria are commonly found in our everyday environment, such as in soil, dust and manure (animal feces).


    Unlike some other vaccine-preventable diseases, tetanus is not spread from person to person. Rather, tetanus bacteria spores enter the body through broken skin, such as from a cut, puncture wound, scrape or other injury (from stepping on a nail, tack or needle, for example). The infection can occur when any type of wound is contaminated with infected dirt, soil, dust or feces.


    According to the CDC, bacteria can also enter through insect bites, dental infections, during surgical procedures or from intravenous drug use. After all, these intravenous needles puncture the skin, which creates a pathway for bacteria into the body.


    Once the spores enter the body, they release harmful toxins that can harm your nervous system.


    Symptoms of a Tetanus Infection

    The average time from infection to the appearance of symptoms (which is known as the incubation period), averages around 10 days, but it can last anywhere from 3 to 21 days. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common type of tetanus infection is referred to as "generalized tetanus," and though symptoms begin gradually, they progressively worsen over a two-week period.


    After infection, pain often begins around the jaw and then progresses downward through the body. Signs and symptoms of generalized tetanus may include:


    • Painful muscle spasms and stiff, rigid muscles in the jaw
    • Muscle tension around the lips, which can even produce a persistent grin
    • Rigid muscles and painful spasms in the neck
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Rigid abdominal muscles


    As symptoms progress, a tetanus infection can lead to repeated painful spasms that resemble seizures and last several minutes. When this happens, the neck and back arch, legs become rigid, arms are drawn up into the body and fists become clenched. Muscle rigidity in the abdomen and neck can also lead to breathing difficulties.


    Other signs and symptoms could also include:


    • Extreme sweating
    • Fever
    • High blood pressure
    • Low blood pressure
    • Rapid heart rate


    What Is a Tetanus Shot: The Components

    Tetanus shots, also known as tetanus toxoid vaccines, contain an inactivated form of tetanus toxin. The vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies against the toxin, which provide immunity and prevent the disease.


    According to the CDC, three vaccines are available to help protect against tetanus in the United States, and all of them also protect against other diseases:


    • Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP) vaccines.
    • Tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccines.
    • Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines.


    Vaccination Schedule

    The Cleveland Clinic says that babies and kids require six doses of the tetanus shot, with the first dose beginning at only two months old. Children typically receive a series of tetanus-containing vaccinations as part of their routine immunization schedule, such as the previously mentioned DTaP or Td vaccines.


    However, it's important to note that the protective effects of the vaccine don't last forever, and adults need a Td booster shot every 10 years to maintain immunity. Typically, this booster shot comes in the form of Td or Tdap vaccines.


    When to Get a Tetanus Shot

    For children, the Cleveland Clinic indicates a dose is needed at the following ages:


    • Two months old
    • Four months old
    • Six months old
    • Between 15 and 18 months old
    • Between four and six years old
    • Between 11 and 12 years old


    Tetanus shots are also necessary following injuries, especially for deep wounds or those contaminated with dirt, soil or saliva. In addition to needing a tetanus shot post-inury, it's also crucial to properly clean a wound as soon as possible to prevent infection. If someone's tetanus immunization status is not up to date and they experience a potential tetanus-prone wound (like stepping on a dirty nail that punctures the skin), it's essential to immediately get a tetanus vaccination or booster shot.


    Post-Injury Tetanus Prophylaxis

    In the medical world, prophylaxis refers to the prevention of or guarding against a disease. In other words, you take action to prevent a disease instead of waiting until you come down with the disease, attempting to treat it after the fact. Post-injury tetanus prophylaxis refers to administering a tetanus shot after an injury in order to prevent a tetanus bacterial infection.


    According to the National Library of Medicine, the use of tetanus prophylaxis is determined by an individual's previous immunization and whether their wound is considered to be low or high risk. Someone who has received zero to three tetanus shots (or an unknown number of doses) would be considered higher risk than someone who has had more than three doses. Similarly, someone with a clean and minor cut would be considered at lower risk than someone who experienced a serious puncture or burn.


    What does this mean? Individuals with minor wounds and a history of complete tetanus vaccination might require a tetanus booster only if it has been more than five years since their last dose. However, someone with a deep or dirty wound may require a tetanus immune globulin (a medication made up of antibodies against the tetanus toxin) in addition to the tetanus shot, especially if the person's immunization status is uncertain.


    How to Prevent Life-Threatening Infections

    In short, tetanus shots could be a real lifesaver. Following the recommended vaccination schedule and receiving timely tetanus shots after injuries are crucial steps in ensuring immunity and safeguarding individuals from tetanus-related complications. Schedule your vaccination appointment today to protect both you and your loved ones.*


    Written by: Cassandra Brooklyn


    *State, age & health restrictions may apply. Ask your pharmacist for details.


    These articles are intended for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.


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