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The most common source of a tetanus infection is through a puncture wound, and avoiding objects and environments that put you at risk of these injuries will help you to avoid the disease. Even if you were able to completely eliminate the risk of puncture wounds, though, tetanus bacteria can enter the body through other types of injuries, such as cuts, burns or insect bites. The only truly effective method of preventing tetanus infection is through inoculation.
Tetanus bacteria might be present nearly anywhere but are most commonly found in soil, manure and dust. While in these environments, tetanus exists as a spore, remaining dormant until introduced to a host. After they are in the body, the spores activate, and the bacteria begin producing powerful toxins. Within a few weeks, or sometimes as quickly as four days, symptoms become apparent.
Patients might experience fever, sweating, diarrhea or bloody stools, headache, sore throat and an accelerated heartbeat, but the primary indicator of tetanus is muscle spasming. This begins as stiffness in the jaw, and muscle spasms eventually cause the jaw to clench tight. It is for this reason that the tetanus infection is sometimes referred to as lockjaw. As the disease progresses, tetanus impairs other muscle groups, including the diaphragm and other muscles essential for breathing, making it a life-threatening disease.
Immunization is your best defense against tetanus infection. Infants can be given first tetanus shots when they are 2 months old, with periodic booster shots required to maintain resistance. After they have been inoculated, adults should get booster shots every 10 years to maintain defense against a tetanus infection.
Prevention of injury will also help to protect you from tetanus infection. For instance, one of the most common sources of tetanus is a rusty nail. If you are in an environment such as a construction site where the risk of injury is higher, use heavy footwear and other protective clothing as appropriate. Keep an eye out for sharp objects such as nails, thorns and splinters that could introduce the tetanus bacteria into your body.
When you do suffer an injury, especially a puncture wound, cleaning the wound immediately will help you to prevent infection, whether your tetanus shots are up to date or not. Tetanus bacteria thrive in dirt, and cleaning the wound can wipe away the bacteria before it can begin producing toxins. After cleaning the wound, a visit to the doctor is also recommended for a tetanus immunoglobulin shot, even if your boosters are up to date. If all of these preventative measures fail, hospitals can administer antibodies and antitoxins to fight the disease and offer life-saving care, such as breathing assistance.
You don't have to step on a rusty nail, either. I was taking a jujitsu class (of course, we were barefoot) and backed into the instructor's clipboard. I stepped on something sticking out and really hurt my foot but good. I was bleeding all over the place.
Naturally, I cleaned the wound, but I went to the doctor the next day, even though I didn't figure I'd have a problem with it. I'm a diabetic and can't be too careful with my feet. The doctor recommended a tetanus shot since it had been about 15 years since my last one. They gave it in my hip. Good thing I was off the rest of the day, since I couldn't sit down! It made my backside sore!
Even if you haven't stepped on anything lately, go ahead and get the shot if you're due for one. I think tetanus boosters last about 10 years, but ask your doctor to make sure that's the case. Just ask at your next check up. Your doctor can tell you if you really need a booster.
Tetanus is a lot less common -- in the US, anyway -- than it used to be. People are routinely vaccinated so doctors just don't see it that often. Fortunately, if it does crop up, treatments are now available that weren't even 50 years ago. Medicine has come a long way.
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