Five Things You Should Know Before Getting a Tetanus Shot
Do you remember the last time you had a tetanus shot? I didn't either, when the doctor asked me when I had my last one. I told her I'm sure it was before I went off to college which was nearly 20 years ago. She told me the clinic was trying to get all of their patients' tetanus shots updated.
Without really thinking about it, I told her to go ahead. The nurse came in and explained to me my arm would probably be really sore for a couple of days. No big deal, I thought. Looking back, I really wish I would have been better informed before getting my tetanus shot. (You can read about my tetanus shot experience on my blog post, "A Real Pain in the Arm."
Here are five things you should know before getting your tetanus shot.
What is Tetanus?
Tetanus, which is also known as lockjaw, is a bacterial infection that affects the central nervous system. When people get lockjaw, they cannot open their mouths or swallow. This bacteria can cause seizures, muscle contractions, muscle spasms and even death.
Many people have heard that cutting yourself on a rusty nail can cause this type of bacterial infection. But it can also be caused when Clostridium tetani (the specific name of the bacteria found in the soil, dust and animal feces) penetrates through an open wound. The bacteria can also find its way into the body through puncture wounds, self body piercing, other breaks in the skin and even burns.
Who is Recommended to Get A Tetanus Shot?
If you are an adult, of course it is up to you to determine which vaccines you feel are necessary. But there are certain recommendations made by the following:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)
- The American College of Physicians (ACP)
For babies it is recommended that they get the DTaP vaccine which protects them against diphtheria (upper respiratory illness), tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). This immunization is given to a child five times between the ages of 2 months and 4-6 years.
Around age 11 or 12, a child should get a booster shot to their DTaP vaccine which is called TDaP. After this, a Td booster is recommended every ten years.
If you are an adult and you have never been vaccinated against tetanus, you can get vaccinated in a three-shot Td series (for tetanus and diphtheria). If you also want to be immunized for pertussis, you can have the TDaP shot for one of those three doses. After you have had these initial three doses, you can continue to get the Td booster shot every ten years.
If you have never been vaccinated against tetanus and end up getting a wound that could possibly get infected, you can still have the tetanus shot but it should be within 48 hours of getting the wound. The longer you wait, the more the bacteria can grow.
According to the CDC, you Should Not get a Tetanus Shot if you:
- Have had a life-threatening reaction to the vaccine
- Have had had an allergic reaction to the vaccine
- Are moderately or severely ill
Ask your doctor if you:
- Have a neurological disease (like epilepsy)
- You have Guillain Barre Syndrome
- You had severe swelling and pain from a previous Tetanus shot
- Are pregnant
What Exactly Am I Getting Injected With?
Tetanus vaccines contains inactivated toxoids from the bacteria Clostridium tetani. The immune system is introduced to the body via the vaccine. This in turn produces the antibodies that are needed to fight off the disease.
*Other ingredients included in the tetanus shot include:
- Formaldehyde - used as a liquid preservative but is considered safe in vaccines because it is used in small amounts.
- Thimerosal - controversial because it contains mercury. This ingredient is no longer used in the children's vaccines for tetanus but is still used in tetanus shots for adults.
- Aluminum Phosphate - The Environmental Defense Fund suspects this ingredient is harmful to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems but is used in tetanus shots in safe amounts.
- Sodium Phosphate Di-basic - creates acidity in the blood which gives the vaccine a boost to work properly.
- Sodium Phosphate Mono-basic - used for its fungicidal properties.
- Sodium Chloride - also known as table salt.
- Distilled Water - is what most of the vaccine is made up of.
*Source: Mosby's Drug Consult
Are There Any Side Effects from Getting a Tetanus Shot?
As with most vaccines, there can be some side effects of having the tetanus shot. Most doctors will say that even with the most adverse side effects, it is better than getting the disease itself.
Common side effects of the tetanus shot include:
- Painful swelling at the injection site
- Body aches
- Low grade fevers
There are other reactions that may be more serious and you may want to contact your doctor if you notice any of the following:
- Swelling of the arm
- Trouble breathing
Can I Prevent Tetanus without Getting the Shot?
First of all, tetanus is rare in the United States with only about 100 cases occurring each year. Most who get tetanus are older people who have not ever been vaccinated. Of those who get tetanus, three out of ten die from it. For others, there can be a 1 to 2-month recovery process which usually involves being in the Intensive Care Unit and large doses of antibiotics.
If you have never been vaccinated or your shot has not been updated, it is critical that any open wound you get be properly treated. Keep the wound clean, apply antibacterial ointment and wrap it with a bandage, changing the dressing at least once a day. Since deep wounds to the foot are more at risk for tetanus, it is a good idea to always wear shoes while outside.
Five Things You Now Know
I hope I have helped you to make a more informed decision when it is time to get your booster shot by helping you to answer these five questions:
- What is tetanus?
- Who is recommended to get the tetanus shot?
- What ingredients are in the tetanus shot?
- What are the side effects?
- Can tetanus be prevented without getting a shot?
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