Tetanus or Tetris? Read and see!

Many people have heard of the common medical term of tetanus before when talking about getting a “tetanus shot” after a bite from an animal. However, it is more complicated than just getting a shot. Read on to learn more about tetanus. How it is treated and how it can be prevented.

Healthy Tip Tuesday is brought to you in partnership with Trinity Health Systems.

What is tetanus?
  • A serious, sometimes fatal disease that affects the nervous system.
  • Caused by a bacterial neurotoxin that leads to painful muscle contractions and spasms, especially in the neck and jaw
  • The involuntary spasms can lead to severe breathing difficulty, broken bones, and other serious issues.

Tetanus symptoms can continue for weeks, and recovery can take months. It may also get the nickname “lockjaw”.

How we can get tetanus
  • Spores are found most commonly in dust, soil, feces, and saliva.
  • The tetanus bacteria can infect us with any break of the skin.
  • An anaerobic bacteria, meaning it thrives without oxygen, it can infect someone more easily if it reaches deep below the skin’s surface.
What puts us at higher risk of tetanus

Animal bite injuries and wounds that could be contaminated with dust, soil, or feces put us at risk for tetanus. Crush injuries, too, are high-risk because they create lots of spaces where tetanus bacteria can develop.

What tetanus looks like

The onset of tetanus usually begins between three days and three weeks after an injury. Symptoms include muscle pain, muscle spasms, difficulty breathing and difficulty swallowing.

How tetanus is treated

From a medical perspective, tetanus is an interesting, unusual disease because of the way bacterial neurotoxin decreases the body’s natural inhibition of neurons.

With tetanus, the body has an overstimulation of muscle, which causes those painful spasms and contractions.

Treatment includes limiting stimuli in the room, as something as simple as lights or sounds can trigger muscle spasms. This treatment is in addition to antibiotics, wound care, medicine to help control muscle spasms and a medication called human tetanus immune globulin. If needed, mechanical ventilation and supplemental nutrition are used.

There is no “cure” for tetanus, but the above treatments serve to prevent the progression of the disease, manage symptoms and prevent complications.

Preventing tetanus
  • Getting vaccinated with the tetanus vaccine is the smartest way to prevent the disease.
  • Children typically receive six doses of the vaccine before reaching adulthood, packaged as diphtheria and tetanus (DT) vaccine; diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine; or tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine. This includes the initial three-shot series, which helps to form the basis for immunization and three boosters prior to adulthood.
  • Adults should receive tetanus vaccines every 10 years, as part of the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine or Td vaccine. However, if you suffer a high-risk wound, the CDC recommends you receive a tetanus vaccine at the time of the injury if your last vaccine was more than five years ago.
  • Farmers and other workers or hobbyists are encouraged to get tetanus shot every five years if they regularly come into contact with dirt and feces and could easily cut themselves.

There are a few downsides to getting the tetanus vaccine more often than the 10-year recommendation. Tetanus is such a serious disease that emergency departments are quick to administer the vaccine to prevent tetanus if the patient is unsure of when they last received the tetanus vaccine.

In addition to emergency departments, tetanus vaccines are typically available in urgent care centers, primary care offices, and in some pharmacies. Pharmacists aren’t trained to evaluate wounds, but some can administer vaccines.

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