Tetanus Shots: What You Should Know

By:    Published: September 5, 2012

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Tetanus is a bacterial infection that develops as a result of a contaminated wound. The disease is a rare occurrence in the United States due to the effectiveness of the tetanus vaccine. In underdeveloped countries around the world, tetanus is much more common, with an estimated one million cases occurring annually worldwide.

When a wound becomes contaminated with tetanus bacteria, the bacteria travel through the bloodstream and invade the nerve endings throughout the body. When the bacteria infiltrate the nervous system, muscle pain and stiffness and muscle contractions occur. The neck and the jaw are the most commonly affected areas, and tetanus infection can interfere with breathing when the respiratory muscles are affected.

Does A Tetanus Shot Prevent Tetanus?

In the majority of cases, tetanus shots given to immunize individuals against tetanus are very effective. People can be immunized against disease in one of two ways:

  • Passive immunization occurs when antibodies are acquired through a natural process. This can include a fetus receiving antibodies via the placenta, a nursing baby receiving antibodies from breast milk, or when exposure to a disease results in the production of antibodies that render the individual permanently immune. Passive immunization does not occur with tetanus, and having tetanus once does not provide future protection. This is why health care providers recommend tetanus booster shots, to allow patients to maintain their tetanus immunity.
  • Active Immunization occurs when an individual receives a vaccine for the purpose of triggering the immune system to produce antibodies. Health officials in the United States encourage active tetanus immunization for all infants and children. Most health care providers recommend that adults continue to receive lifelong tetanus booster shots at 10 year intervals.

[Related – School Immunization Requirements]

Who Should Get A Tetanus Shot?

A tetanus shot induces the body to respond to a form of tetanus toxin that is inactivated, resulting in the development of tetanus antibodies. Tetanus shots are recommended for everyone, but it is especially important for some individuals.

  • Individuals who suffer from a puncture wound or have a dirty wound should receive a tetanus shot if it has been longer than 10 years since their last tetanus shot.
  • For deep puncture wounds and wounds that are at a high risk of tetanus infection such as those that are contaminated with animal feces, saliva or dirt, some health care professionals will recommend a tetanus shot if it has been longer than five years since the person last received a tetanus shot.
  • Individuals who are unsure of when they last received a tetanus shot should get a booster shot if they suffer from a deep or puncture wound.
  • Individuals who are traveling to Third World countries and any are that is underdeveloped should make sure that they have received a booster tetanus shot within the past five years.

When Should A Tetanus Shot Be Given?

Health officials in the United States recommend that infant and children receive active immunization against tetanus. The tetanus vaccine is given as part of a combination vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and accellular pertussis. The 3-part vaccine is given to babies at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 12-18 months. Children receive another vaccine at the ages of 4-6. A booster shot is generally given at the age of 14-16 and then every 10 years after.

[Related – Whooping Cough Vaccine]

Adults who were not vaccinated against tetanus as a child should receive 3 doses of the vaccine spread out over a 7 month timeframe. The first 2 tetanus shots should be given 4 weeks apart. The final shot should be given anywhere from 6 months to one year after the second shot. The normal 10 year booster shot schedule can then be followed.

How Often Are Tetanus Shots Needed?

After the primary tetanus series has been completed, individuals should get a booster tetanus shot every 10 years. If an injury occurs that causes a deep or puncture wound that carries a high risk of contamination with tetanus bacteria, a booster shot is recommended if it has been longer than five years since the last booster shot.

Some individuals are concerned with the effects of receiving a booster shot before the immunity from a previous shot runs out. Generally, it is safe to receive an extra booster shot. If a possibly contaminated wound exists, the risk of developing tetanus is far greater than the risks of over-vaccinating.

How Long Does the Protection Last?

There is no clear cut evidence for how long a tetanus shot will continue to provide immunity. Some health care providers believe one shot in adulthood is enough to offer 30 years of protection or more. Because the length of time of protection is unknown, and because people may respond differently to immunity, a timeframe of 5-10 years has been established.

Are Tetanus Shots Safe for Everyone?

In most cases, tetanus shots are safe and recommended for all individuals. This includes children, adults, pregnant women and the elderly. Individuals who have experienced a severe allergic reaction from the any component of another vaccine are at a risk of complications from the tetanus vaccine and generally, they should avoid it. Individuals who had a specific reaction to a previous tetanus shot should not receive the vaccine again. Vaccine reactions that are suggest the vaccine should be avoided include:

  • Temperature over 105 degrees F
  • Collapse
  • Shock
  • Persistent crying lasting longer than 3 hours
  • Convulsions (within 3 days of receiving vaccine)

Are There Side Effects?

As with any other vaccine, there is the potential for side effects with a tetanus shot. Though not common, local reactions can occur. They include:

  • Fever
  • Redness at injection site
  • Swelling at injection site
  • Soreness
  • Generalized body aches
  • Tiredness

Severe allergic reactions are much less common. Individuals who experience a severe allergic reaction should seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:

  • Rash over the entire body
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue and/or airways
  • Difficulty breathing

While there are some potential side effects that are associated with the tetanus shot, they are not common. The majority of individuals who receive a tetanus shot do not experience any side effects. Because tetanus is a dangerous disease that can even be fatal, it is important to understand the risks involved with not receiving the shot. Most health care professionals believe the risks of not vaccinating are far greater than the potential risk of side effects and severe allergic reactions.

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