How Dangerous Is Tetanus Really? 10 FAQs | The SurvivalDoctor

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Over the years I’ve given my share of tetanus shots. And over the years, I’ve noticed that while most people know they need one on occasion, they’re just not sure when or, in fact, what the shot really prevents. I thought I’d provide my take and answer a few FAQs.

Q: What does a tetanus shot do?

A: A tetanus shot, tetanus vaccine, lockjaw shot, or whatever you call it does one thing. It keeps you from getting the tetanus infection. That’s it. It does not keep the wound from getting infected by any other much more common bacteria or anything else.

Q: What is tetanus?

A: Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterium called clostridium tetani, which is found in dirt and manure. The bacteria gets into your body via a wound and produces a toxin that causes all the symptoms, such as fever and muscle spasms. The spasms can be severe enough to break bones and cause trouble breathing or swallowing. This trouble with the throat and mouth gives tetanus its nickname, lockjaw.

Q: Is tetanus deadly?

A: The disease is severe but not always fatal. In fact, even untreated, about 60 or 70 percent of people who get it recover, but it can take months. With modern treatment in a hospital intensive care unit, the mortality rate drops to about 10 percent. Still, that’s pretty significant, I’d say.

Q: How common is tetanus?

A: In the United States there are now only about 30 documented cases of tetanus each year, but worldwide there are about 10,000. The difference seems to be proper cleaning methods and the use of the vaccine.

Q: What are some additional ways to prevent tetanus?

A: Good cleaning of a wound can decrease your chances of getting tetanus. Antibiotics can kill the bacteria but apparently not effectively or fast enough to keep it from producing the toxin.

Q: How does the tetanus shot work?

A: If the bacteria stay in your system—and it only takes a few to produce enough toxin—the only really effective way to treat tetanus disease is by preventing it from ever getting a good hold on you. That’s done by giving the tetanus shot. This vaccine prompts you to produce antibodies against the toxin. The vaccination consists of a base series of shots followed by a booster every five to 10 years.

Q: What if I get a wound but haven’t kept up with my tetanus boosters?

A: You may need a different type of shot called tetanus immune globulin. This shot contains ready-to-go antibodies (your body doesn’t have to produce them) to the toxin that are directly injected into your system. The problem is, these antibodies go away pretty fast, so to have antibodies on hand for future use, you’ll need the vaccine series and boosters as well.

Even if you’ve kept up with your boosters, you also may still need this tetanus immune globulin shot if the wound is particularly deep or dirty, or if it’s a puncture wound or crush injury.

Although some wounds are at higher risk, the fact is any wound or scratch can potentially result in tetanus. You can’t just rely on taking the immune globulin when you think you’re exposed. You need antibodies in your system all the time—by taking the immunization series and keeping up with the boosters. And a cut or puncture wound is a good reminder to make sure you’re up-to-date.

Q: How quickly does tetanus kick in?

A: After you’ve been infected with clostridium bacteria, tetanus symptoms typically start three to 21 days later. If you need a booster, you should get it as soon as you can after getting a wound, but if it’s a problem to get it right away, most would say try to get it within three days of your injury.

Q: Does the tetanus shot have any side effects?

A: As with any medicine or vaccine there is the potential for side effects, but severe ones are rare. What’s not rare is a sore arm the day after the shot. Sometimes there is a little fever. That should go away in a few days. Meantime, you can consider taking some ibuprofen or acetaminophen if you think you need it.

Q: I’d never take a vaccine! Will the doctor try to force me to?

A: For those of you who are anti-vaccine, even tetanus shots, please don’t let that delay you from seeking other treatments, such as stitches, for the wound. No doctor or medical facility can force you into any treatment you don’t want. They may ask you to sign a paper for liability reasons, but if you’d rather take the risk of getting the disease, that’s your option.
What about you? What has been your experience with tetanus shots?


Photo: Flickr/emilydickinsonridesabmx