Should you be worried about tetanus?
Summer is a time to enjoy the outdoors. Planting, gardening and fixing up the house are typical weekend hobbies. But before digging in the dirt or hammering that rusty nail, it’s important to be aware of the dangers that tetanus poses.
What is tetanus?
Tetanus is an infection picked up through a crack or puncture in the skin that comes in contact with soil, dust, animal waste, or anything else carrying the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also linked to insect bites, open wounds, dental infections and IV drug use.
The infection, also known as “lockjaw,” causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body, leading to locking of the jaw and making it impossible to open your mouth or swallow. Symptoms can include seizures, headaches and fevers.
“The potential for a tetanus infection is high because many people have puncture injuries on a fairly regular basis, especially children, farmers, metal workers and others,” says Dr. Stacy Orwig, a family medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group in Roanoke, Ill. “Symptoms can start anywhere from one to 90 days after contact, but will usually start to show within two weeks.”
Due to potential complications from the disease, such as pneumonia, 10 to 20 percent of people who contract tetanus die, says Dr. Orwig.
What causes tetanus?
Rusty nails are often blamed for causing tetanus, but it is the tetanus bacteria and not the rust that causes the disease, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which notes that a shiny nail is just as likely to give a person tetanus as a rusty one.
The infection begins when the tetanus bacteria spores become active after moving deep within the body, producing a toxin that attaches to the nerves around the wound. The toxin spreads to the ends of the spinal cord nerves, where it meets the muscles, resulting in severe muscle spasms powerful enough to tear muscles apart, according to the AAP.
How to treat the infection?
Tetanus vaccination is widely available in the United States to help prevent the infection from occurring. The vaccine is usually given in early infancy in combination with vaccines for diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).
Medical experts are adamant that receiving the shot is essential in prevention.
“Tetanus is a disease that is easily preventable with vaccines, and because of its severity and potential for complications, it‘s a disease you don’t want to experience,” says Dr. Orwig. “Children are vaccinated for tetanus from 2 months to 5 years and again at 12 years old. Adults are given a booster every seven to 10 years after that.”
The CDC collected data that showed the number of tetanus cases has declined by 95 percent since 1947 due to the availability and effectiveness of vaccinations.
Although, the CDC reports that tetanus flares up from time to time, especially in adults who were not vaccinated as children or who have not stayed current with booster shots. They advise individuals to stay up to date with tetanus booster shots throughout all stages of life.
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