Tetanus goes by the nickname “lockjaw” for good reason: It causes painful spasms that typically occur in jaw muscles but can wrack the entire body, and can be fatal.
Sharp, rusty objects like nails often get blamed for causing tetanus, but the disease actually spreads by Clostridium tetani spores in the environment. They can be found in dirt and feces, so just about anything that breaks the skin — a bike accident, a cut while digging in soil, a dog bite — can potentially inject tetanus spores into the body where they turn into bacteria.
Almost all U.S. tetanus cases occur among people who are unvaccinated or did not receive a booster shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tetanus cases began to drop around 1900 after physicians improved education about the need for cleanliness and better wound care. The introduction of a vaccine in the late 1940s caused the rate to plunge from more than 600 cases per year to an average of around 30 today, according to CDC data.
Today, the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) or the DT (diphtheria-tetanus) vaccine are used for children. CDC recommends they be given in five doses: at 2, 4, and 6 months; between 15 and 18 months; and between 4 and 6 years of age. Preteens should get a booster (the Tdap or Td) at age 11 or 12, and adults should get a booster every 10 years.
Last Updated On
April 17, 2019