Updated January 12, 2021
As you spend time in the great outdoors, you should be aware of the risks of contracting tetanus.
Tetanus is a dangerous nerve condition caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani.
You can get a tetanus infection when certain substances — such as soil or fecal matter — enter cuts and scrapes on your body. This can cause problems with movement and brain and nervous system functions.
So, when you fall on the trail or cut your hand on a rusty swing set you shouldn’t ignore it.
No matter how minor the wound, you should act quickly to protect yourself from tetanus.
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Many people associate tetanus with rusty objects — like stepping on a rusty nail or cutting yourself on a sharp piece of metal.
But the bacterium actually lives in soil, dust, and manure. Any activity that brings you in contact with these substances carries a risk of tetanus infection.
Even very small open wounds — as small as a needle prick — could cause tetanus, though it’s more likely with large cuts.
Other common ways you can get a tetanus infection include:
- Animal bites or scratches
- Bug bites
- Deep burns
- Body piercings and tattoos
Your risk of tetanus infection increases if the puncture becomes dirty.
Keep in mind — you can’t get tetanus from another person, so there’s no risk of transmitting the disease to someone else.
Who’s at Risk?
The best way to lower your risk of contracting tetanus is by staying up-to-date on your tetanus vaccine, which requires a booster shot every ten years. Everyone who has not had their tetanus vaccine is vulnerable to this condition.
The following factors can put you at a higher risk of getting tetanus if you’re unvaccinated:
- Occupations such as farming, firefighting, and construction
- Old age
- Outdoor hobbies such as hiking, gardening, or camping
- History of diabetes or immunosuppression
Tetanus impacts the nerves that control your muscles, so you may experience difficulty swallowing, or feel stiffness in your jaw, abdomen, chest, back, and neck. Here are some of the most common symptoms of tetanus:
- Muscles spasming
- Stiff feeling or achey muscles
- Involuntary eye movement or blurred vision
- Sudden weakness in the arms or legs
- Double vision
You may be familiar with tetanus’ nickname lockjaw, which stems from the painful muscle contractions in the jaw and neck that the condition can create.
If you start feeling muscle stiffness or having trouble breathing, seek emergency medical care.
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How to Prevent Tetanus
If it’s been more than 10 years since you last had a tetanus shot and you cut yourself with metal, find immediate medical attention.
For those who have recently had a vaccine, such as the DTaP or TD boosters:
- Clean the wound with water and soap, if available.
- Put on antibiotic ointment.
- Place a bandage over the wound to prevent dirt or other bacteria from entering.
If your cut is especially deep or you believe you’re at an increased risk of contracting tetanus, contact your doctor right away.
Tetanus can be treated with a variety of therapies and medications, and your doctor will choose a treatment method based on the severity of your symptoms.
Some common treatment options for tetanus include:
- Cleaning the infected wound to cleanout the source of the bacteria
- Muscle relaxers to reduce muscle spasms
- A tetanus vaccine may be given in coordination with treatment
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 Level 2 trauma center at UPMC Altoona.