What is Tetanus and When Do We Need Tetanus Shots?

February 13, 2023
2 min read
What is Tetanus and When Do We Need Tetanus Shots?

Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is a serious nervous system condition caused by a toxin-producing bacterium. The most prevalent symptom of tetanus is severe muscle contractions, especially in the jaw and neck muscles. Severe complications from tetanus can be life-threatening and there’s no cure presently available.

Treating tetanus focuses on managing symptoms and complications until the toxin’s effects resolve. Due to the prevalence of tetanus shots, cases of tetanus are rarely seen in the United States today. In developing countries where vaccinations are less common, it’s still a deadly threat.

Tetanus Symptoms

The most commonly seen type of tetanus is called generalized tetanus. Tetanus symptoms first appear on average after 10 days, taking anywhere from three to twenty-one days to manifest. These signs and symptoms begin gradually and worsen over the course of two weeks. They usually start around the jaw and progress downward.

Symptoms of generalized tetanus include painful muscle spasms and immovable muscles in the jaw. This can also lead to tension in the muscles around the lips or neck, painful swallowing, and rigid abdominal muscles. These progress into repeated painful spasms that last for several minutes. The neck and back arch, the legs become rigid, arms draw up into the body, and the knees clench. This muscle rigidity can also cause breathing difficulty. These can be triggered by minor stimulations, like loud sounds, drafts, physical touches, or sudden changes in light.

As it progresses, other symptoms can manifest, like rapid heart rate, blood pressure changes, fever, and extreme sweating.

What is Tetanus?

So, what is tetanus, and what are its causes?

Tetanus is caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. This bacterium can survive dormant in soil or animal feces until it finds an environment to thrive in. One such environment is the human body. After being awakened, the cells rapidly grow and divide, releasing a toxin called tetanospasmin. This toxin is what impairs the nerves in the body and affects muscle control.

The biggest risk to getting tetanus is not being vaccinated and not keeping up with 10-year tetanus booster shots. Other exposure factors can increase the risk of infection. These are things like cuts or wounds exposed to soil or manure, or foreign bodies like a nail or splinter. Using shared and unsanitary needles with illegal drug use also increases the risk of tetanus.

When Do We Need a Tetanus Shot?

A tetanus shot is first given to children as part of the Diphtheria and Tetanus toxoids and Acellular Pertussis vaccine (also called DTaP). This is given as a series of six shots starting at two months to about 4 to 6 years old. After that, tetanus boosters can be given after 10 years.

Generally, tetanus is a dangerous and life-threatening disease. If you show signs or symptoms, seek emergency care. However, if you’ve had a tetanus shot within the last 10 years and have a simple clean wound, it can be cared for at home. 

Other causes to look out for with tetanus are puncture wounds, foreign objects in the wound, animal bites, or deep cuts. Likewise, wounds contaminated by dirt, rust, or saliva can cause tetanus. Or, if a wound has not been properly cleaned. If it’s been five or more years since your last tetanus shot, you may require a booster after such exposure.

Take Care of Tetanus with BASS Medical Group

Are you up to date on your tetanus boosters? BASS Medical Group is here to help make sure you and your family are properly vaccinated

With regular vaccination treatments, many potentially dangerous conditions can be properly treated. This is especially the case when avoiding the painful complications that result from tetanus. Call or make an appointment today to find out more information.