We’ve been getting tetanus shots since we were kids.

Now it’s just sort of a reflex that every time we go to the Emergency Room or to our personal physician, we’re asked whether or not our tetanus status is up to date.

What’s the big deal anyway? No one’s ever died of tetanus. Have they?

Tetanus is a disease caused by the extremely potent toxin of the prevalent spore forming bacterium Clostridium tetani that is found in high concentrations in soil and animal excrement.

It’s been around for thousands of years and causes significant problems worldwide.

Worldwide, tetanus caused approximately 356,000 deaths in 1990. With aggressive immunization programs, that number fell to 59,000 deaths in 2013.

Here in the United States, because of our immunization program, we only see approximately 30 cases per year – all in the unimmunized or in those who’ve allowed their immunization status to lapse.

Clostridium tetani enters the body through a break in the skin and symptoms usually begin within 3 to 21 days from initial exposure.

The classic symptoms are severe muscle spasms that start in the jaw (that’s why it’s called “Lock-jaw”) and then spread to the rest of the body.

The spasms last several minutes each time and the symptoms persist for 3 or 4 weeks. They can be so severe and sustained that they actually break bones and cause severe arching of the back.

Other symptoms may include fever, drooling, intense sweating, difficulty swallowing, breathing problems, uncontrolled urination, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeat.

It may take months to fully recover from tetanus because the tetanus toxin irreversibly bonds to nerve endings then requiring new nerves to grow. About 10% of cases prove to be fatal.

The only way to prevent getting tetanus, other than never being exposed to the bacterium, is to make sure that you are immunized. The recommended adult vaccination in the United States is either the Td or the Tdap vaccine that includes tetanus toxoid as well as diphtheria and acellular pertussis protection.

It is recommended that you have a booster every 10 years unless you have a dirty or contaminated wound, then that recommendation falls to 5 years.

If you’ve forgotten when your last tetanus booster was, err on the side of caution and get one. It’s not going to hurt you to be “overimmunized”.

If you have an injury and are unsure of when your last tetanus booster was, you may be given tetanus immunoglobulin, or tetanus antibodies as well.

Remember, the booster you get today, isn’t effective and doesn’t provide protection until your body mounts an immune response to it by building antibodies.

We say that usually takes 10 days to 3 weeks to be safe.

So, what do you do if you step on a nail, cut yourself on a barbed wire fence, get a splinter from walking barefoot in a field, or get bitten by a dog?

Encourage a bit of bleeding to flush out the wound, rinse your wound under copious amounts of running water while using a mild antibacterial soap, and if you haven’t had a tetanus booster in the past 5 to 10 years, get one.

Tetanus is a bad disease to get – especially because it is so very preventable. A little preparation on the front end can save you from literally months of agony.

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