How Long Does a Tetanus Shot Last?

Tetanus is not all about rusty nails

Tetanus vaccination
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It is recommended that all adults receive a tetanus booster shot every ten years. Tetanus shots are not just tetanus shots, however. They're almost always bundled with another vaccine unless you're getting the shot because of a deep, dirty cut or a similar wound.

It is not just rusty nails that you have to worry about, either. The bacteria that causes tetanus is found in many parts of the environment and you can be exposed through any open wound.

That is why it's important to stay up to date on your booster shots. Due to the high immunization rate, cases of tetanus are not common.

DPT, DTaP, and Tdap Shots

The most common vaccines included with tetanus are diphtheria and pertussis, better known as whooping cough. In the past, these were referred to as DPT shots (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus).

Recently, they've been referred to as DTaP (the original vaccine) or Tdap (one version of the booster vaccine). The initials refer to tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis and they're all a little bit different.

What Is a Booster Shot?

Boosters are what you get after you received the first vaccination series as a kid. Every 10 years you should be getting a tetanus booster from your doctor.

Recently, because of the rise of whooping cough—in California especially—doctors have been giving Tdap shots to teens and adults at least once for their 10-year booster.

Normally, however, boosters are for tetanus and diphtheria (Td) alone.

Authorities also recommend a booster shot if you get a particularly nasty open wound (a laceration, penetration, or avulsion) if it has been five years or longer since your last tetanus shot. Depending on how bad the injury is, you may also get a straight shot of tetanus vaccine without the other vaccines.

Which Tetanus Shots Do We Actually Need?

The first DTaP immunizations start when children are only 2 months old, but no earlier than 6 weeks. The schedule of DTaP shots for young children typically follows this guideline:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 to 18 months (could be as early as 12 months)
  • 4 to 6 years (right around kindergarten)

Adolescents get a booster Tdap shot at around 11 to 12 years. If they miss this, it's okay for them to get a Tdap between 13 and 18 years.

It is recommended that adults get a Tdap shot for one of their tetanus boosters. The others will all be Td shots. Remember, you need a tetanus booster every 10 years. If you are over 65, you might not need the Tdap shot, but you can still get one. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.

What Is Tetanus Anyway?

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is from a bacteria found in soil, dust, and manure called Clostridium tetani. The spores are in the environment all around us and only form into the bacteria after entering the body.

The disease affects the nervous system and leads to muscle spasms. It doesn't just lock your jaw closed, but that is the most widely known symptom.

Besides not being able to open your mouth, tetanus can make swallowing difficult and cause neck stiffness.

Additionally, some people experience muscle cramps in the abdomen. These spasms will be in the muscles of the abdominal wall and not in the gut like other types of cramps.

It can take between three and 21 days from the time of exposure until the first signs of illness. The average incubation period is 10 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the heavier the contamination and more serious the wound, the shorter the incubation period becomes and the more serious the illness can get.

If left untreated, tetanus can eventually lead to seizures. It causes death in 10 to 20 percent of all patients, primarily this occurs in older people.

The CDC does note that the occurrence of tetanus is rare. In 2017, they reported an average of 30 cases each year. The majority of these are people who were never vaccinated or adults who did not have their 10-year booster.

How Do You Get Tetanus?

Many of us were taught that you get tetanus from rusty nails, but it has more to do with the dirt on the nail than the rust. Since the spores that develop into tetanus are everywhere, there are more ways that you can contract the disease. This is why it's advised to get a regular tetanus booster shot.

For instance, the CDC that the spores can get into your body through any broken skin. This includes wounds, punctures, burns, "crush injuries," and any injury that involves dead tissue.

In rare cases, tetanus may occur in clean superficial wounds in the top layer of the skin or those from surgical or dental procedures. Insect bites, compound fractures, chronic sores and infection, intravenous drug use, and intramuscular injections are also linked to tetanus on rare occasions.

It is also common for organizations to offer tetanus boosters after a natural disaster, including floods. This is a cautionary action during or after events where contaminants are prevalent in hopes of preventing many cases within the affected community. If you are offered one during such an event and it has been awhile since your last booster, it's advised that you get the shot.

The good news is that you can't get tetanus from someone else because it is not a contagious disease.

A Word From Verywell

The advice to keep up to date on your tetanus shots is given for a very good reason. Tetanus is a serious disease and because it can be caused by such a variety of factors, booster shots are recommended every 10 years. 

If you do get a cut worthy of stitches, you might need to have a tetanus shot, too. The doctor that treats you up should be able to decide if you need the shot or not. If she offers one, it is probably a good idea to take it.

Source:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Tetanus. 2017.

Gowin E, et al. Does Vaccination Ensure Protection? Assessing Diphtheria and Tetanus Antibody Levels in a Population of Healthy Children. Medicine. 2016;95(49):e5571. doi:10.1097/md.0000000000005571

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