Tetanus is a serious and potentially fatal infection caused by a toxin in the bacteria Clostridium Tetani. The disease is sometimes also called “Lock Jaw” because symptoms often start with tightening of the muscles around the jaws making it difficult or impossible to open the mouth. Painful tightening, stiffening, and locking of the muscles can then spread to other parts of the body. This can eventually interfere with breathing and sometimes lead to death.
How is it spread?
Unlike many other infectious diseases tetanus does not spread from person to person. Spores from the tetanus causing bacteria live everywhere from dirt/soil, dust, and animal feces (including cats and dogs).
The tetanus toxin from these sources can get into the body through breaks in the skin, especially wounds or injuries that involve:
- Punctures of the skin, such as stepping on a nail
- Contamination with dirt, feces, or saliva
Although less common, tetanus spores can also get into the body through any break of the skin or cut including clean and superficial wounds.
Despite tetanus spores being common in the environment, infections are very rare due the near universal use of tetanus immunizations in the United States. Immunization, including booster shots every 10 years, are the best way to prevent tetanus.
The tetanus vaccine or “shot” is part of the routine childhood immunization series and 5 doses are given in early childhood with a final childhood dose given between 11-12 years old.
After this “booster shots” should be given every 10 years.
What to do when cuts, wounds, injuries occur?
Hold pressure to stop bleeding and clean thoroughly with warm soapy water.
If your child has a wound or break in the skin that is contaminated by soil, dirt, saliva, feces or if it occurred from a puncture or a bite of any kind follow up with your pediatrician as soon as possible.
If your child is not fully immunized against tetanus or you are unsure of the status of immunization you should follow up with your pediatrician for even small, clean, and superficial wounds or breaks in the skin to determine if additional treatment to prevent tetanus is needed.