Updated Sept. 16, 2020

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What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus, sometimes referred to as lockjaw, is a bacterial infection that affects the brain and nervous system, leading to extremely painful muscle rigidity.

Fortunately, the tetanus shot has made this dangerous condition rare.

The tetanus infection is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. When deposited in a wound, this bacterium produces toxins that interfere with movement and brain and nervous system functions.

In addition to being painful, tetanus can cause difficulty breathing and muscle spasms. It can cause serious health complications, including tightening of the vocal chords, infections, and fractures. It can even be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 to 2 out of 10 cases are fatal.

How do you get tetanus?

Spores of tetanus bacteria exist throughout nature in areas like soil, dust, and manure. They typically enter the body through a break in your skin, such as burn, cut, or wound (including puncture wounds). Once inside your body, the spores develop into bacteria.

Tetanus bacteria get stronger in areas of the body with little oxygen. A deep, narrow wound, like a puncture from a dirty nail, can cause a greater possibility of tetanus.

It can take anywhere from one day to months for tetanus to develop once bacteria enter your body. According to the CDC, most cases develop within 14 days.

Emergency tetanus shots

If you are badly cut and have not kept up with your 10-year tetanus boosters, you should receive a tetanus shot at a nearby urgent care facility or emergency room. It is critical that you do so soon after being injured.

A tetanus infection can enter the body through small cuts, scrapes, and scratches. If you’re cut by a metallic or rusty object or suffer a deep wound, immediately consult a doctor about receiving a tetanus shot. Keep in mind, tetanus infections can also occur as a result of burns, animal bites, or wounds contaminated with dirt or feces.

What Is the Tetanus Shot?

The tetanus shot is a standard immunization that infants and children receive. The most common version of this vaccine is the DTaP vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and pertussis and is thought to be 100 percent effective.

There are three other versions of the tetanus vaccine, all of which protect against multiple diseases:

  • Diptheria and tetanus (DT) vaccines
  • Tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccines
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines

The CDC recommends tetanus vaccination for all ages. Also, because protection from the shot begins to lessen over time, booster shots of the vaccine are recommended every 10 years.

Where to get a tetanus shot

If you fall into any of the above categories and are considering getting a tetanus shot, you should contact your family doctor. Additionally, some pharmacies are now offering on-site vaccinations administered by health care professionals.

Side effects of the tetanus shot

As with any medication, the tetanus vaccine comes with some risk of side effects. These side effects are usually minor and subside after a few days. Possible side effects include:

  • Arm stiffness
  • Pain or soreness in the location of the shot
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness

If you experience any of these symptoms, please consult your doctor.

Tetanus Vaccination for Adults

Today, most adults have been vaccinated for tetanus as a child and only need to maintain booster shots of the vaccine. It’s not too late, however, to receive the vaccine if you did not during childhood: Adults are able to receive the DTaP vaccine.

Medical professionals recommend receiving the vaccine as an adult if you:

  • Weren’t vaccinated as a child
  • Haven’t had a booster in more than 10 years
  • Are of advanced age
  • Have been diagnosed with diabetes
  • Have had tetanus disease before
  • Interact with young children on a regular basis

If you’re in need of an emergency tetanus shot, visit a UPMC Urgent Care or UPMC Emergency Room immediately.

About Trauma & Emergency Medicine

Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or the beat of the heart. And when they do, seconds matter. UPMC’s emergency and trauma care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our emergency departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care, including Level 1 trauma centers at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Mercy, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, a Level 2 trauma center at UPMC Hamot, and a trauma center at UPMC Altoona.