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Vaccines to Prevent Tetanus
Playing outdoors can mean getting cuts that may become infected with bacteria commonly found in soil, including the ones that cause tetanus. Tetanus vaccine can help prevent tetanus disease, commonly known as "lockjaw." Tetanus is a serious disease that causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body. It can lead to "locking" of the jaw so the person cannot open his mouth or swallow. Tetanus leads to death in about one in ten cases.
There are four combination vaccines used to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough): DTaP, Tdap, DT, and Td. Two of these (DTaP and DT) are given to children younger than seven years of age, and two (Tdap and Td) are given to older children and adults. Talk to your provider if you are unsure which vaccines you or your children have received in the past.
Note: Upper-case letters in these vaccine abbreviations denote full-strength doses of diphtheria (D) and tetanus (T) toxoids and pertussis (P) vaccine. Lower-case “d” and “p” denote reduced doses of diphtheria and pertussis used in the adolescent/adult-formulations. The “a” in DTaP and Tdap stands for “acellular,” meaning that the pertussis component contains only a part of the pertussis organism.
Last reviewed: April 2015
Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria. When the bacteria invade the body, they produce a toxin, or poison, that causes painful muscle contractions. Tetanus infection mainly affects the neck and abdomen. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because it often causes a person's neck and jaw muscles to lock, making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. It can also cause breathing problems, severe muscle spasms, seizures, and paralysis. Complete recovery can take months. If left untreated, tetanus can be fatal.
Tetanus is different from other vaccine-preventable diseases in that it does not spread from person-to-person. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust, and manure and enter the body through breaks in the skin – usually cuts or puncture wounds.
Everyone needs protection from tetanus. The DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) can help prevent tetanus in young children. DTaP shots are recommended for healthy babies at ages 2, 4, and 6 months, and again at 15 through 18 months. A DTaP booster is recommended for children ages 4 through 6 years old.
Because immunity to tetanus decreases over time, older children need to get the Tdap vaccine. This booster shot contains a full concentration of tetanus and lower concentrations of diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). The Tdap vaccine is recommended for all 11-18 year olds, preferably given to preteens going to the doctor for a regular check-up at 11 or 12 years old.
Early symptoms: lockjaw, stiffness in the neck and abdomen, and difficulty swallowing.
Later symptoms: severe muscle spasms, generalized tonic seizure-like activity, severe autonomic nervous system disorders.