What Is the Tetanus Vaccine
The tetanus vaccine is part of the recommended series of childhood and adult immunizations. It protects against the bacterial infection tetanus, also known as lockjaw.
Tetanus causes painful muscle spasms and can lead to death. The tetanus vaccine has made tetanus a preventable disease. Thanks to its widespread use, lockjaw has become very rare in the U.S. Even so, adults need to be vaccinated against it. There’s no cure and 10% to 20% of people who have it die.
You can’t get tetanus from another person. You can get it through a cut or other wound. Tetanus bacteria are common in soil, dust, and manure. The tetanus bacteria can infect a person even through a tiny scratch. But you’re more likely to get tetanus through deep punctures from wounds created by nails or knives. The bacteria travel via blood or nerves to the central nervous system.
Tetanus symptoms result from a toxin produced by tetanus bacteria. Symptoms often begin around a week after a person is infected. But this may range from 3 days to 3 weeks or even longer. The most common symptom is a stiff jaw, which can become "locked." This is how the disease came to be called lockjaw.
Symptoms of tetanus may include:
- Muscle stiffness, starting in the jaw, then the neck and the arms, legs, or abdomen
- Trouble swallowing
- Restlessness and irritability
- Sweating and fever
- Palpitations and high blood pressure
- Muscle spasms in the face, causing a strange-looking steady smile or grin
If not treated, tetanus can cause death from suffocation.
Tetanus Vaccine Types and Schedules
You normally get tetanus shots in the deltoid (shoulder) muscle. Children get it in the arm or thigh. Four different kinds of vaccines protect against tetanus and other diseases. The one you get is based on your age and vaccine status.
- DTaP is given to babies and young children. It protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough).
- DT is for babies and young children who’ve had a bad reaction to the whooping cough vaccine. It only protects against diphtheria and tetanus.
- Tdap is given to older children and adults. It protects against diphtheria, tetanus. and pertussis.
- Td is the booster shot for older children and adults that only protects against diphtheria and tetanus.
Children typically get five doses of the DTaP or DT vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15 and 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years. Then comes one dose of Tdap between the ages of 11 and 12, and a Td booster every 10 years.
If you didn’t get a tetanus vaccine as a child, you should start with a three- dose primary series with one dose of Tdap and two doses of Td. You get these vaccines over a period of seven to 12 months. After receiving the primary series, you’ll need a Td booster every 10 years.
An additional dose of Tdap is recommended for women in the third trimester of each pregnancy to protect their babies until they’re old enough for their own vaccines.
Who Should Get the Tetanus Vaccine?
You should have a tetanus shot if you:
- Did not get a primary series of tetanus shots as a child
- Have not had a tetanus booster in the last 10 years
- Have recovered from tetanus
Who Should Not Get the Tetanus Vaccine?
You shouldn’t get a Tdap vaccine if you have had a severe allergic reaction after a previous Tdap vaccine. You also shouldn’t get a Tdap vaccine if you have a history of coma or seizures within a week following a previous Tdap vaccine. Talk to your doctor if you have a history of epilepsy or other nervous system problems, severe pain or swelling in the past after a previous tetanus vaccine, or a history of either Guillain-Barre syndrome or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.
Wait to get the Tdap vaccine if you have a moderate to severe acute illness.
Tetanus Vaccine Ingredients
The vaccines are made up of tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis toxins that have been made nontoxic but they still have the ability to create an immune response. These vaccines do not contain live bacteria.
Tetanus Vaccine Risks and Side Effects
It's important to know that, in general, the risk of problems from getting tetanus is much greater than from getting a tetanus vaccine. You cannot get tetanus from the tetanus shot. However, sometimes the tetanus vaccine can cause mild side effects. These may include:
- Soreness, redness, or swelling at the site of the injection
- Headache or body aches
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Fussiness in babies and small children
Very occasionally, small children may have more serious side effects from the DTap vaccine, such as:
- Fever above 105 degrees
- Inconsolable crying for 3 hours or more
- Swelling of the whole arm or leg where the shot was given
A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) is also very rare, but can happen within minutes of being vaccinated. Symptoms may include:
- Skin flushing, itching, or swelling
- Trouble breathing or other respiratory symptoms
- Mouth and throat swelling
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramping
- Dizziness, low blood pressure, a fast heartbeat
If you have any signs of a severe reaction:
- Call 911 or get to a hospital right away.
- Describe when you had the vaccine and what happened.
- Have a health care professional report the reaction.
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