Tetanus Shot Reactions: Side Effects of the Vaccine

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious disease that attacks the nervous system with the potentially deadly bacteria calledClostridium tetani.

It's often referred to as "lockjaw" because it can cause painful spasms and stiffness in your jaw muscles.

In addition to the jaw,C. tetanibacteria can lead to painful muscle contractions in the neck, as well as cause breathing difficulties.

Due to the tetanus vaccine, the disease is rare in the United States and other developed countries, though about one million cases are reported around the world each year.

Most U.S. cases occur in people who have not received the tetanus vaccination.

When tetanus does occur, it can take months to fully recover, and one out of five people who get tetanus die. Children who get tetanus may need several weeks of hospital care.

Tetanus Causes

Tetanus does not spread between people. Spores of theC. tetanibacteria are found in soil, animal feces, and dust. While the spores are inactive in the soil, they can remain infectious for more than 40 years.

If the spores get into your body through an injury, burn, or wound, they release bacteria that make a poison called tetanospasmin (also called tetanus toxin).

This poison blocks nerve signals from your spinal cord to your muscles, causing severe muscle stiffness and spasms, which in some cases can injure muscle tissue or cause fractures of the spine.

People may be infected following:

  • Animal bites
  • Puncture wounds, such as splinters, body piercings, and tattoos
  • Gunshot wounds
  • Compound fractures
  • Crush injuries
  • Surgical wounds
  • Injection drug use
  • Ear infections
  • Infected foot ulcers
  • Infected umbilical stumps in infants born from mothers who weren't immunized

The following factors are necessary for tetanus bacteria to proliferate in your body:

  • Not getting immunized or not receiving booster tetanus shots
  • The existence of a penetrating injury that results in tetanus spores getting into the wound
  • The presence of other infective bacteria
  • Injured tissue
  • A foreign object, such as a nail or splinter
  • Swelling around the injury

Tetanus Prevention

Tetanus is easily preventable by being immunized with the DTaP vaccine, which also provides immunity against the bacteria that cause diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). Immunization usually protects against tetanus infection for 10 years, and then a booster shot is needed for continued protection.

If you get a deep wound or other injury listed above that could cause tetanus, as long as you've been immunized prior to the incident, your body should quickly make the needed antibodies to protect you against the disease.

If you have a minor wound, these steps can help prevent you from getting tetanus:

Stop the bleeding:Apply direct pressure to a bleeding wound.

Clean the wound:If there are no objects embedded in the wound, once bleeding has stopped, use clean running water or saline solution to rinse the wound.

You can use soap and a washcloth to clean the area around the wound.

Apply a topical antibiotic:Antibiotics can ward off bacterial growth and infection, so after you clean the wound, apply a thin layer of an antibiotic cream or ointment, such as Neosporin and Polysporin.

Protect the wound:Bandages can protect the wound against harmful bacteria. Keep blisters that are draining covered until a scab forms.

Whenever a dressing is wet or dirty, change it, and change dressings at least once a day.

Tetanus Symptoms

The first symptoms can occur about 7 to 21 days after being infected with the bacteriaC. tetani.

However, the average incubation period is 7 to 8 days.

Mild spasms and stiffness in the jaw muscles are usually the first signs of tetanus; with the below symptoms following shortly thereafter:

  • Stiffness in neck muscles
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Stiffness in abdominal muscles
  • Spasms in the back, which often cause arching called opisthotonos, and spasms in other body parts (called tetany)
  • Spasms that affect muscles that help with breathing, leading to breathing problems

Other signs and symptoms may include:

Tetanus in Infants and Children

Newborn babies whose mothers weren't immunized can catch neonatal tetanus, a form of generalized tetanus that usually occurs through infection of the unhealed umbilical stump, particularly when the stump is cut with an unsterile instrument.

This form of tetanus causes the death of around 200,000 newborns annually around the world.

Tetanus Complications

Complications from tetanus may include the following:

Fractures and broken bones:Intense muscle spasms can cause the spine and other bones to break.

Disability:Prolonged use of strong sedatives to control muscle spasms can lead to permanent disability.

Brain damage:Since spasms can restrict oxygen, tetanus may cause lasting brain damage in infants, from minor mental deficits to more serious conditions like cerebral palsy.

Death:Severe muscle spasms from tetanus can cause airway obstruction and the inability to breath. Respiratory failure is the most common cause of death in people with tetanus.

Cardiac arrest may also occur from lack of oxygen, as well as pneumonia. With proper treatment, less than 15 percent of people with tetanus die.

Neonatal tetanus:This can occur in a newborn whose mother has not been immunized.

To avoid these and other complications, call your doctor if:

  • You have a deep open wound and haven't been immunized for tetanus or you have not received a booster shot within 5 years.
  • You got injured outdoors, and the wound has been in contact with soil.

Video: How to Avoid Tetanus

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