Speaking of Health – Tetanus

By Gilda Morales, ANP, DC

Today’s column deals with tetanus…what is it, why you need the vaccine and when.  Tetanus is an infection caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. Spores of tetanus bacteria are everywhere, including soil, dust, and manure. The spores develop into bacteria when they enter the body, resulting in a serious infectious condition called lockjaw. (CDC 2016)

Tetanus is often called “lockjaw” because one of the most common signs of this infection is tightening of the jaw muscles. Tetanus infection can lead to serious health problems, including being unable to open the mouth and having trouble swallowing and breathing.  Some other symptoms of lockjaw include:

• Jaw cramping

• Sudden, involuntary muscle tightening (muscle spasms) — often in the stomach

• Painful muscle stiffness all over the body

• Trouble swallowing

• Jerking or staring (seizures)

• Headache

• Fever and sweating as well as changes in blood pressure and a fast heart rate

The tetanus spores can get into the body through broken skin, usually through injuries from contaminated objects. Certain breaks in the skin are more likely to get infected with tetanus bacteria. These include:

• Wounds contaminated with dirt, feces, or saliva

• Wounds caused by an object puncturing the skin, like a nail or a needle

• Burns

• Crush injuries

The incubation period, or time from exposure to illness, is usually between 3 and 21 days (average 10 days), although it may range from one day to several months, depending on the kind of wound. Most cases occur within 14 days. In general, shorter incubation periods are seen with more heavily contaminated wounds, more serious disease, and a worse outcome. (CDC, 2016)

Today, tetanus is uncommon in the United States. There were about 30 reported cases per year between 1996 and 2014. Nearly all cases of tetanus today are in people who never got a tetanus vaccine, or adults who don’t stay up to date on their 10-year booster shots.  Tetanus toxoid-containing vaccines are estimated to protect essentially all people for approximately 10 years. Protection decreases over time, so adults need to get a Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster shot every 10 years to stay protected.  (CDC, 2016)


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