Stay Current with Tetanus Vaccines and Boosters and Stay Healthy

June 17, 2024

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Have you found yourself spending more time outdoors lately? You’re not alone. Recent weather has Coloradans from the eastern plains to the western slope clamoring for more time in the sun hiking, biking, gardening, and taking in all our great state has to offer. These activities mean more opportunities for scrapes, wounds, and injuries. Did you know that tetanus bacteria live in our environment? People often associate tetanus with rusty nails or barbed wire fencing, but it’s actually more often transmitted by dust or soil that enters the body through a wound or cut. Today on the Team Vaccine blog, we showcase the often deadly disease and what you can do to protect yourself and the ones you love.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus (also called “lockjaw”) is a serious infection caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria. The bacteria produce a toxin which causes painful tightening of the muscles. This can lead to “locking” of the jaw and leave a person unable to open their mouth or swallow. Unlike many other diseases we vaccinate for, tetanus is not a communicable disease that you can catch from another person. Tetanus bacteria live in our environment and we can get tetanus from wounds and cuts. The following are types of wounds that pose greater risk for tetanus infection:

  • A wound that gets dirty with soil, feces, or saliva (from either animal or human bites)
  • Puncture or penetrating wounds
  • Wounds that cause skin tissue to die including compound fractures, crush injuries, burns, and frostbite

There is no cure for tetanus. Proper wound care combined with vaccination are the best ways to prevent tetanus. If you or a loved one experience any of the above types of wounds, consult a medical provider who can help assess the risk of tetanus infection, discuss treatment, and also help determine your vaccination status to decide if further tetanus vaccination is necessary. 

What are the signs, symptoms, and complications of tetanus infection?

Symptoms of tetanus infection typically occur between 3 to 21 days from exposure. Often, the first sign is spasms of the jaw. After that, symptoms progress and worsen, working down throughout the body. Other symptoms may include trouble swallowing, muscle spasms, headache, stiffness throughout the body, fever, changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and seizures.

Complications from tetanus infection can include difficulty breathing, tightening of the vocal cords, blood clots in the lungs, lung infection, and bone fractures. Once tetanus spreads throughout the body, there is a chance of death. Between 10 and 20% of tetanus cases result in death.

Those older than 60, people who have diabetes, and those who are immunosuppressed are at greater risk if they get a tetanus infection. Tetanus infection in pregnant people and newborn babies is extremely dangerous.

What vaccines protect against tetanus and when should they be given?

Tetanus infection does not lead to immunity; people who survive a tetanus infection can get reinfected. Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus. Tetanus vaccines have been in use since the 1940s. They are safe and while they are effective, protection does wane over time. That’s why it’s important to stay current with both vaccinations and booster doses of DTaP and Tdap vaccines which protect against not only tetanus, but also diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). The vaccines are recommended for: 

  • Infants and children, who should get 5 total doses of DTaP vaccine, 1 dose at each of the following ages: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, and 4-6 years. Colorado law requires the 5th dose of DTaP for kindergarten entry.
  • Teens, who should get 1 dose of Tdap vaccine between 11 and 12 years. Colorado law requires the Tdap vaccine for entry into 6th grade.
  • Pregnant people, who should get 1 dose of Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy at 27-36 weeks. This provides passive immunity to their baby at birth and for the first two months of life while they are too young to receive the DTaP vaccine. It’s also important to make sure that those in close contact with infants are up to date with Tdap vaccines. This helps shield or “cocoon” them from whooping cough which is also extremely dangerous for babies.
  • Adults, who should receive the Tdap vaccine if they have never had it. After that, adults should receive a Tdap booster every ten years. 

While you and your loved ones enjoy the great Colorado outdoors this summer and beyond, ensure that tetanus doesn’t ruin the fun by ensuring everyone is protected with DTaP and Tdap vaccines. Talk to your medical provider, local public health department, or pharmacist if you have questions about tetanus or tetanus vaccines. 

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases and increase vaccine uptake. Much work remains. Discover ways to support our commitment to healthy Colorado communities at our website or make a donation today!

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