Tetanus is an infectious disease that affects your nervous system, causing painful muscle contractions, progressive muscle rigidity, and seizure-like muscle spasms. Commonly known as lockjaw, tetanus can be fatal if it affects your respiratory muscles and stops your breathing.
Given that the bacterium that causes tetanus is widespread in the environment, you might be surprised to learn that only about 30 people are diagnosed with this serious illness each year in the United States.
The reason? An effective, long-standing national immunization campaign that’s given the vast majority of Americans strong protection against this serious, incurable disease.
As family medicine experts who offer routine vaccinations for people of all ages, our skilled team at American River Urgent Care can help your entire family stay up-to-date on important vaccines — from your initial tetanus series to your periodic booster shot. Here’s how to make sure you’re protected.
Basic facts about tetanus
Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that occurs when spores of the bacterium clostridium tetani get inside your body and begin producing a poisonous substance that’s toxic to your nervous system.
Found in many places throughout the environment, these hardy spores are resistant to heat, cold, and most antiseptics. They can remain dormant for years, and then reactivate when they gain access to a suitable host — usually a human.
Tetanus typically enters the body through a wound that breaks the skin. Once inside, it “wakes up” and produces a potent poison that hijacks nervous system function, triggering intense and often painful muscle spasms. Common tetanus symptoms include:
- Stiff jaw muscles (otherwise known as lockjaw)
- Painful neck muscle contractions and stiffness
- Excessive and often painful facial muscle tension
- Increasingly rigid jaw, neck, and facial muscles
As it progresses, tetanus can cause severe muscle rigidity and convulsive spasms through your neck and abdomen that may lead to life-threatening respiratory difficulties.
A vaccine-preventable disease
Developed in 1924, the tetanus vaccine was widely distributed for the first time during World War II. National reporting of tetanus cases began at about the same time, and showed a constant decline in tetanus infections and deaths.
Prior to the arrival of this highly effective vaccine, tetanus was more likely to affect people who engaged in physical outdoor occupations and activities like construction, firefighting, farming, gardening, and camping. Such activities carry a higher risk of skin-breaking wounds and work-related injuries, and the spores that lead to tetanus are widespread in the outdoor environment.
Since tetanus became a vaccine-preventable disease, however, the people who carry the highest risk of contracting it today are:
- Those who’ve never been vaccinated against tetanus
- Those haven’t kept up with their periodic booster shots
Data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention show that just 264 cases of tetanus (and 19 tetanus-related deaths) occurred in the United States between 2009 and 2017. In nearly all these cases, those affected were either completely unvaccinated or had failed to get their recommended booster shots every 10 years.
Tetanus vaccination schedule
Tetanus is the only vaccine-preventable disease that isn’t communicable, meaning you can’t catch it from another person. Unfortunately, just one risky injury can be enough to put you in the hospital with a life-threatening tetanus infection if you’re not vaccinated or up to date on your booster.
The recommended path to tetanus immunity looks like this:
- An initial 3-shot series during infancy (at 2, 4, and 6 months of age)
- Two booster shots to maintain protection through early childhood (at 15-18 months of age and again between the ages of 4 and 6 years old)
- One booster to sustain protection through adolescence (around 11 or 12 years old)
- Maintenance booster shots every 10 years, starting in early adulthood
Simply put, getting vaccinated against tetanus and maintaining your immunity status with a booster shot every 10 years can virtually eliminate your risk of contracting this serious disease.
The following vaccines offer combined protection against tetanus and other diseases:
- DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis); initial immunity building series
- DT (diphtheria and tetanus); immunity boost for older children or adolescents
- Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis); immunity maintenance for adults
- Td (tetanus and diphtheria); immunity maintenance for adults
Children and adults who never received the immunity-building vaccine series when they were infants should receive the initial 3-shot immunization series first, followed by periodic booster shots as recommended.
Protect your health today
If you or anyone in your family isn’t fully protected against tetanus, we can help. Give us a call today, stop by our walk-in clinic at your convenience, or click online to book a visit at American River Urgent Care, in Orangevale, California, any time.