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 that I was sure it was before I went off to college—nearly 20 years before. 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 that my arm would probably be really sore for a couple of days. "No big deal," I thought. Looking back, I really wish I had known more before getting my tetanus shot. (You can read about my tetanus shot experience on my blog post, "A Real Pain in the Arm."
What You'll Learn By the End of This Article
Here are five things you should know before getting your tetanus shot:
- What Is Tetanus?
- Who Should Get a Tetanus Shot?
- What Am I Getting Injected With?
- What Are the Side Effects of Tetanus Shots?
- Can I Prevent Tetanus Without Getting Vaccinated?
1. What Is Tetanus?
Tetanus is a bacterial infection (via Clostridium tetani) that affects the central nervous system. It is also known as lockjaw because one of the characteristic symptoms is the inability to open the mouth or swallow. Tetanus can also cause seizures, uncontrollable muscle contractions, muscle spasms, and even death.
You may have heard that you can get tetanus from a cut by a rusty nail. However, it isn't the rust or the nail but the bacteria on it that causes the infection. C. tetani commonly exist in soil, dust, and animal feces—most notably, horse feces—and spreads through direct contact with broken skin, open wounds, and even burns.
2. Who Should Get a Tetanus Shot?
There are recommendations made by the following organizations:
- 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)
It is recommended that babies 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—the TDap vaccine—for protection against the same diseases. After this, a Td booster is recommended every ten years. The Td vaccination is only for tetanus and diphtheria, not whooping cough.
If you are an adult and have never been vaccinated against tetanus, you can get vaccinated in a three-shot Td series. 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 the initial three doses, you should get a Td booster shot every 10 years.
If you have never been vaccinated against tetanus and end up getting a wound that could possibly get infected, you can still get vaccinated, 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)
- Have Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Had severe swelling and pain from a previous tetanus shot
- Are pregnant
3. What Exactly Am I Getting Injected With?
According to Mosby's Drug Consult, the tetanus vaccine contains toxoids (inactivated toxins) from C. tetani. Exposure to the toxoid causes the immune system to produce antibodies against it. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight against the live toxin if you become infected in the future.
There are also other ingredients included in the tetanus shot:
- Formaldehyde: It is used as a liquid preservative to store the vaccines. Because it is used in very small amounts, it isn't considered toxic.
- Thimerosal: This is controversial because it contains mercury. This ingredient is no longer used in the children's vaccines for tetanus but is still used in tetanus vaccines for adults.
- Aluminum phosphate: The Environmental Defense Fund suspects this ingredient is harmful to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. However, in this case, it is used in safe amounts.
- Sodium phosphate dibasic: Used to keep a proper pH balance. This helps the vaccine work more effectively and keeps the other ingredients dissolved in solution.
- Sodium phosphate monobasic: Also used to keep a proper pH balance.
- Sodium Chloride: Table salt.
- Distilled Water: What the ingredients are dissolved in.
4. What Are the Side Effects of a Tetanus Shot?
As with most vaccines, there can be some side effects of 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 include:
- Painful swelling at the injection site
- Body aches
- Low-grade fevers
There are other reactions that may be more serious. You should contact your doctor if you notice any of the following:
- Swelling of the arm
- Trouble breathing
5. Can I Prevent Tetanus Without Getting the Shot?
Tetanus is rare in the United States—only about 100 cases occur each year. The most common cases are older adults who have never been vaccinated. Of those who get tetanus, 3 out of 10 die from it. For others, there can be a one- to two-month recovery process that 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 have is 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.