Stepping on a rusty nail is one way you can get tetanus, but it’s not the only way. The bacteria that causes this serious, incurable disease is widespread in the environment, and any cut, burn, or puncture wound that exposes you to it can be problematic.
Luckily, there are only about 30 reported cases of tetanus in the United States each year, largely because it can be prevented through immunization. People who are vaccinated against tetanus can maintain lifelong immunity by getting a booster shot every 10 years.
As an urgent care facility and walk-in clinic that offers immunizations for adults and children alike, American River Urgent Care can help you and your family stay up-to-date on important vaccinations, including your tetanus shot. Here’s what you should know.
Tetanus is a debilitating disease caused by a bacterial infection that turns toxic when in your body. Clostridium tetani, the bacterium that causes tetanus, is naturally present in soil, saliva, dust, and manure. It survives in a dormant state until it finds a suitable place to reawaken.
This destructive bacterium only comes alive inside a human or animal host (although it isn’t very common, tetanus can affect horses, cats, and dogs, too). Once inside a host, it produces a potent poison that impacts nervous system function and causes painful muscle contractions.
Because tetanus typically affects muscles in the head, jaw, and neck first, it’s often referred to as lockjaw. Common symptoms include:
- Stiff jaw muscles that become increasingly rigid
- Painful neck muscle spasms and stiffness
- Facial muscle tension that affects your expression
- Persistent headaches and difficulty swallowing
- Stiff or spasming limbs, abdomen, and/or back
While prompt intensive medical care greatly increases the chances of recovery, tetanus is a progressive disease that can lead to a wide range of life-threatening complications. As such, any suspected tetanus case should be treated as a medical emergency.
Tetanus risk factors
Tetanus was far more common before experts developed and distributed an effective vaccine to prevent it. Jobs and activities that carried a higher risk of tetanus in the pre-immunization era included construction, firefighting, farming, gardening, and camping.
Given that the bacterial spores that cause tetanus are common in soil, dust, and manure, it makes sense that outdoor physical activities that come with a higher risk of injury still come with a higher risk of tetanus today.
But that’s not the whole story. Now, the availability of an effective vaccine means that the people who carry the highest tetanus risk are those who remain unvaccinated against it.
Remember — anyone can sustain a cut, scrape, puncture wound, burn, or other injury that breaks open their skin and exposes them to the bacterium that causes tetanus. Injuries that are caused by a dirty or contaminated object (like a rusty nail) are most commonly associated with tetanus.
While it’s far less common, it’s still possible to contract tetanus through minor skin breaks, like a raw, open insect bite or a chronic skin sore. This is why careful wound care — and updated tetanus vaccinations — are so important.
Prevent tetanus today
Tetanus has the unusual distinction of being the only vaccine-preventable disease that isn’t communicable, meaning you can’t catch it from another person. It’s also exceptionally rare in most developed nations because so many people are vaccinated against it.
But don’t let these facts lull you into a false sense of security — if you aren’t vaccinated, just one risky skin injury can be enough to land you in the hospital with a life-threatening infection.
You can virtually eliminate your tetanus risk by getting vaccinated and maintaining your immunity status with a booster shot every 10 years. The following vaccines offer combined protection against tetanus and other diseases:
- DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis)
- DT (diphtheria and tetanus)
- Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
- Td (tetanus and diphtheria)
Your age group determines which tetanus vaccine is right for you. The DTaP vaccine series builds immunity in babies and young children, the DT vaccine provides an immunity boost for preteens, and adults receive continuing coverage when they get the Tdap or Td vaccine once every 10 years.
If you’re an adult who never received the DTaP immunization series when you were a child, that’s the vaccine you should receive first, followed by a Tdap or Td shot once every decade.
To schedule a visit or learn more about the vaccinations available at American River Urgent Care in Orangevale, California, call 916-287-8569 today.