Tetanus FAQ – Understanding the Tetanus Shot

Posted: 15th October 2013 by Michael Levanduski in First Aid & Medical
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tetanus shotJust about everyone has had, or knows someone who has had the tetanus shot.  It is one of the most common vaccinations today, and it is an extremely effective way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting this very serious disease.  While most people have had a tetanus shot, few of them really understand what it does and why it is important.  The following are some of the most common questions asked about tetanus, and the tetanus shot.

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a bacterium known as clostridium tetani.  It is commonly found in dirt and manure, and can get into your body through cuts and other wounds.  The bacteria produces a toxin which causes a variety of symptoms including fever and muscle spasms.  These muscle spasms can be extremely severe, even to the point where they can break bones, prevent your jaw from opening (which is why the disease is often called lockjaw) and even cause trouble breathing and swallowing.

Is Tetanus Deadly?

Some people, especially those who are hesitant to get any vaccinations, want to know whether or not tetanus can kill you.  Tetanus is an extremely serious disease, but it is not always fatal.  Without any treatment, about 65% of people infected will recover after several months.  With modern medicines and treatment options, only about 10% will die.  This is still a very significant risk, and even those who do recover, have to go through the very unpleasant experience of fighting this disease.

Is Tetanus a Common Disease?

There are about 10,000 reported cases each year worldwide.  In the United States there are only about 30 cases per year.  This is largely due to the widespread use of the tetanus vaccine, and proper cleaning methods for those who have been exposed to the bacteria which causes tetanus.

How Does the Tetanus Shot Protect Me?

The tetanus vaccine keeps you from getting the tetanus infection by exposing your immune system to a weakened or killed tetanus bacteria.  Your immune system builds up the defensive antibodies needed to fight tetanus so they are ready in the event that you are exposed in the future.  This is similar to how most other vaccines work as well.  It is important to note that the tetanus shot does not protect you from other infections which can be caused by a cut, so proper cleaning and care of all cuts is important, even if you’ve had the tetanus vaccination.

Can I Prevent Tetanus Without the Tetanus Shot?

Many people are hesitant to get shots or vaccinations unless they are absolutely necessary.  If you don’t get a tetanus shot, and feel you may have been exposed to the bacterium, you can take some steps to reduce the chances of getting the disease.  First, make sure you clean the wound extremely well.  Wash it out with clean water and an antiseptic fluid as soon as possible after getting the injury.  This can help to kill the bacteria before it is too late.

If you are experiencing symptoms of tetanus, you can go to a doctor to receive a shot known as tetanus immune globulin, which is a shot of antibodies already created to fight tetanus.  These antibodies don’t last very long, but they may be enough to help your body fight off the bacteria and prevent it from setting in.

Finally, if you feel you have been exposed, your doctor should put you on a strong antibiotic.  This will help fight the bacteria, but it doesn’t act fast enough to prevent it from setting in, which is why the immune globulin is given as well.  When given soon enough after infection, it is possible to prevent the disease, or at least reduce the strength of it.

Are there Side Effects to the Tetanus Shot?

All medicines and vaccines have the potential for side effects.  The most common side effects are a soreness in the area around the shot for a day or two.  Some people will experience a fever, which typically passes in two or three days.  In very rare cases there can be some more severe side effects.

If I Haven’t Gotten the Vaccine, but Think I’ve Been Exposed, Will the Doctor Make me get Vaccinated?

Doctors cannot, and will not force you to get a vaccination. They may strongly recommend it, but they are not allowed to force it, and they can’t withhold other treatments if you won’t get a vaccine.  Some people are strongly against all vaccines for medical or moral reasons, and doctors will respect that choice.

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