Everything You Need to Know About the Tetanus Vaccine
A guide to the vaccines travelers may need to have.
The Tetanus Disease
Tetanus — a bacterial disease that occurs when spores of the bacteria Clostridium tetani, enter the body — causes severe problems to the nervous system. These bacteria like to hang out in both soil as well as feces, meaning that for someone who’s never been vaccinated, any puncture wound (scrapes, splinters, needle injections, stepping on a rusty nail) has the potential to develop into Tetanus.
What’s genuinely scary about Tetanus is that it never goes away. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Once tetanus toxin has bonded to your nerve endings it is impossible to remove.”
After entering your bloodstream, the tetanus spores produce a toxin that feeds on your nerves and hinders their ability to control muscle movement. This leads to painful muscle contractions that result in a frozen jaw (hence the nickname "lockjaw") and neck muscles, and even an inability to breathe.
Related: What You Need to Know About Vaccines
The Tetanus Vaccine
The tetanus vaccine, developed in Germany in the late 1800s, has significantly reduced the occurrence of tetanus disease. It's been available in the United States since the 1940s, and immediately caused a 95 percent drop in the rate of disease — and has meant most of us never have to worry about infection from a contaminated wound.
The initial tetanus vaccine is given in a series — two doses four weeks apart, and then a final third dose 6 to 12 months later. (Nowadays, it’s often given as a combo called Td, which mixes vaccines for tetanus and diptheria, another potentially lethal bacterial infection.)
Since most of us received tetanus vaccines as kids, a booster shot every 10 years is all that’s needed. So effective is the vaccine at preventing tetanus that doctors recommend a booster shot for anyone who’s had a recent puncture wound, regardless of when you had your last shot.
The tetanus booster shot is covered by most health insurance plans, though it’s a good idea to check with your individual provider. Under health insurance, the copay for a tetanus shot is between $10 and $40. For those not covered, a tetanus shot is given at most public medical centers for a flat fee between $25 and $60.
Though most people have little or no side effects after receiving a Tetanus vaccine, some develop soreness or pain. This is caused by a concentration of the vaccine in one area of the body. To spread out the vaccine, and reduce soreness, simply massage the muscle around the area where the shot was given, which will help increase blood flow.
Treatment for Tetanus
Although there’s no cure for tetanus — in the event that the bacteria is introduced to someone who has not been vaccinated — medication is available to stop the toxin production and to treat muscle spasms.