Learning About Tetanus

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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by bacteria. The bacteria make a toxin, or poison, that causes severe muscle spasms. Tetanus can be very dangerous, but you can get shots to prevent it.

Tetanus is also called "lockjaw." It gets that name because muscle spasms in your jaw make it hard to open your mouth.

The bacteria that cause tetanus might enter your body through a wound, cut, splinter, or burn. Deep wounds, such as from a dirty nail, are a common way for tetanus bacteria to enter your body.

How can you prevent tetanus?

You can prevent tetanus by getting all of your recommended immunizations (shots). There are three different shots that protect you from tetanus.

  • DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis). DTaP is given in a series of 5 shots starting at age 2 months and ending at ages 4 to 6 years.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis). Tdap is the first booster shot for tetanus. It is recommended at age 11 or 12. It's also recommended for all teens and adults who never had the Tdap shot. People who are pregnant need a Tdap shot during each pregnancy.
  • Td (tetanus and diphtheria). Td is given as a booster shot every 10 years.

If you never had tetanus shots as a child, or if you're not sure if you had them, you'll need to get 3 tetanus shots in about a 1-year time span. (Your doctor will tell you which shots you will need.) After that, 1 booster shot every 10 years will protect you.

You will need a tetanus shot as soon as possible if you have a dirty cut, wound, or burn and 5 or more years have passed since your last tetanus shot. The doctor will clean the wound and may give you antibiotics.

What happens when you have tetanus?

In most cases, symptoms of the disease start within 14 days. But it might take longer. Symptoms often start with a headache and stiffness in the jaw. You also may have a stiff neck, back, or shoulders. Some people have seizures, and it may be hard to swallow.

As the toxin spreads, it can be deadly. It can cause problems with your blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause severe and painful muscle spasms in your neck, arms, legs, and belly.

If you are infected with tetanus, you will need to stay in a hospital. Your doctor will clean any wounds or cuts. Treatment may include a tetanus shot. You may get antibiotics to kill bacteria. And you may get medicines and fluids to control muscle spasms and pain. If you need to be in the intensive care unit (ICU), you may get treatment to help with breathing and other body functions.

What should you do if you have a reaction to a tetanus shot?

Some people get a fever as a reaction to a tetanus shot. Reactions may also include warmth, swelling, pain, and redness at the site where the shot was given. Home treatment can help you feel better.

If you do feel discomfort, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine for pain and fever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

If you have swelling, put an ice pack on the area where the shot was given. Do this for 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day, for the first 24 to 48 hours. After 48 hours, heat may feel better.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.