5 Facts You Should Know About Preventing Tetanus

Tetanus is preventable if you get vaccinated


Tetanus is a dangerous, preventable disease that's caused by a form of bacteria, Clostridium tetani, that lives in the soil. Symptoms include stiffness, spasms and eventually paralysis in muscles that control the face and body.

People who have tetanus often display a sardonic smile, because their facial muscles lock into that expression. That's why tetanus also is called "lockjaw." The sardonic smile is involuntary.

Treatment for tetanus can help, but it doesn't always work, and even in the United States one person in five who contracts tetanus dies from the disease. That's why it's important to be vaccinated for tetanus—the disease is preventable, but it isn't easily treated.

Here are five facts you may not know about tetanus vaccination:

1. You Need Multiple Tetanus Shots for Protection

One shot doesn't do it—to prevent tetanus, most people need three or more shots at first, plus booster shots throughout their lives.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call for children to get the DTaP vaccine (DTaP is short for "diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (pertussis)") at ages two, four, six, and 15-to-18 months, as well as at age four to six years. Teens should receive their final DTaP booster around age 11 to 12, or at least by age 18.

Adults should receive a plain tetanus booster every decade after that.

If you have a wound, you should be vaccinated again if you haven't had the shot in the last five years.

Yes, tetanus shots can hurt a little, but the side effects are temporary. Tetanus, on the other hand, is deadly.

2. Pregnant Women Can (and Should) be Vaccinated

It's safe to receive a tetanus shot during pregnancy.

In fact, the CDC recommends pregnant women have the combination diphtheria-tetanus-whooping cough shot once during pregnancy, between 27 and 36 weeks.

Worldwide, tetanus kills many newborns—the tetanus bacteria can enter through where the umbilical cord is cut, especially if the cord isn't cut with something that's sterile. Fortunately, these deaths are declining as awareness improves.

3. There Are Several Different Types of Tetanus Vaccine

Doctors can use one of multiple different types of tetanus vaccine, including the DTaP, the Tdap, the single tetanus vaccine, and TIG (tetanus immunoglobulin). DTaP and Tdap both are designed to give you immunity to tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough, but they contain different dosages of the vaccines.

Each of these is used under different circumstances. For example, young children are given DTaP because it stimulates a strong immune system response. TIG, meanwhile, is used when a speedy immune system response is needed. It also can be used to treat tetanus.

If you're confused about what vaccine you should receive, talk to your doctor about your options.

4. You Probably Should Get the Shot If You Have a Wound

The tetanus bacteria hasn't gone away just because most people in the U.S. are protected against the disease it causes.

C. tetani spores live in all soil, and may appear in animal (and even human) stool.

Therefore, the bacteria can infect us if it enters through an open wound. The wound doesn't even have to be particularly serious.

Therefore, if you've injured yourself and broken the skin, carefully clean your wound, and then get a tetanus shot if you haven't had one in five years, or you haven't had at least three doses.

5. Besides Infants, the Elderly Are Most at Risk

Worldwide, infants are at significant risk of tetanus. But you may not realize the elderly are at high risk for the disease, too.

In fact, the risk of dying of tetanus is five times higher in those older than age 65, and seniors account for some 30% of tetanus deaths.

Those who use intravenous drugs are at higher risk for tetanus. In addition, diabetics suffer from tetanus at three times the rate of those without that chronic condition.

Chronic ulcers, abscesses, and gangrene cause one in six tetanus cases in the U.S. And for one in 12 tetanus cases, there's no obvious injury.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus (Lockjaw) fact sheet.

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