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When to get a tetanus shot after an injury

If you live in the United States, you’ve likely had several tetanus vaccines throughout your life. But how do you know if you need another tetanus shot after a cut or other injury? Pratik Thaker, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, explains.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by a toxin-producing bacterium that affects the nervous system.

“Tetanus is a preventable, but very dangerous, disease,” says Dr. Thaker. “It’s uncommon in the United States—there are about 30 reported cases each year. But nearly all those cases were in people who weren’t vaccinated.”

Other tetanus risk factors—besides being unvaccinated—include:

  • A foreign object in a wound, such as a splinter or a nail

  • Wounds or cuts that are exposed to dirt or manure

  • Shared needles for illegal drug use

  • A medical condition that compromises your immune system

  • An infected skin injury or sore if you have diabetes

  • An infected umbilical cord if the mother isn’t vaccinated

Symptoms of tetanus

Early tetanus symptoms can include:

  • Muscle contractions, especially in the jaw and neck muscles (also known as lockjaw)

  • Painful muscle spasms in your neck

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Rigid muscles around your lips and abdomen

  • Painful, seizure-like spasms

  • Breathing problems

If the disease progresses, it can cause:

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Extreme sweating

  • Low blood pressure

  • High blood pressure

  • Fever

When to get a tetanus shot

“Tetanus can be a very life-threatening disease, so it’s important to ensure children are vaccinated and adults get regular booster shots,” says Dr. Thaker.

The recommended tetanus vaccine schedule is:

  • DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years

  • Tdap booster at age 11 or 12

  • Tdap or Td booster shot for adults every 10 years

  • Tetanus booster during the third trimester of pregnancy, regardless of vaccination status

Do you need a tetanus shot after an injury?

Whether you need a tetanus shot after a cut, puncture wound, bite or burn depends on the type of injury.

“If a wound is contaminated with dirt or saliva or was caused by something made from metal, you should see your primary care provider or go to urgent care for a tetanus booster if you haven’t had a booster in five years,” says Dr. Thaker. “If you can’t remember when you had your last tetanus booster and we can’t find documentation, there’s no harm in getting a tetanus booster.”

If you sustain any type of injury, he recommends practicing first aid:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, then dry them on a clean towel.

  • Gently wash the wound with soap and water and dry it with a clean towel.

  • If the wound was contaminated with dirt or saliva or it’s a deep wound, go to urgent care or your primary care provider ASAP.

Finally, Dr. Thaker emphasizes that vaccines—including tetanus shots—are safe for most people as long as they aren’t allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine.

“Vaccines don’t cause autism,” he says. “Unless you have a very good reason not to get vaccinated, you should get the vaccine.”

Vaccines save lives, so ask your primary care provider if you’re up to date on your vaccinations.

We make getting great health care simple and convenient. Schedule an appointment today through your Piedmont MyChart account or our website.

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