Topic Overview

How can I prevent tetanus?

Tetanus (lockjaw) infections are very rare in Canada. You can help prevent tetanus by having all of the suggested tetanus shots (immunizations). There are three different types of tetanus shots. Immunization schedules vary in each province and territory. Ask your immunization health professional what shots are right for you.

Why is it important to prevent tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The tetanus bacteria get in a wound through a break in the skin or mucous membrane. A cut, puncture wound, deep scrape, deep burn, or any injury that breaks the skin or mucous membrane are called wounds.

The bacteria make a toxin, or poison, that causes severe muscle spasms and seizures. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because muscle spasms in your jaw make it hard to open your mouth. This makes it hard to swallow or breathe. Tetanus can be very dangerous and can cause death. The best way to prevent the disease is to have a tetanus shot if you need one.

How can I tell if I need a tetanus shot?

To decide if you need a tetanus shot, first decide if the object that caused the wound was dirty or clean. An object is dirty if it has dirt, soil, spit, or feces on it. A clean object does not have dirt, soil, spit, or feces on it.

You will need a tetanus shot if:

  • Your wound was caused by something that was clean and your last tetanus shot was longer than 10 years ago.
  • Your wound was caused by something that was dirty and your last tetanus shot was longer than 5 years ago.
  • You are not sure if your wound was caused by something clean or dirty and your last tetanus shot was longer than 5 years ago.
  • You are not sure when you had your last tetanus shot.
  • You did not get the first series of tetanus shots (primary vaccination series).

If you need a tetanus shot, call your doctor to arrange for a shot.

Some people may need tetanus immunoglobulin (IG) for a wound that is at high risk for developing tetanus. The immunoglobulin is usually only needed if you have not (or do not know if you have) completed the tetanus primary vaccination series.

What should I do if I have a reaction to a tetanus shot?

If you have a reaction to a tetanus shot, your symptoms may include warmth, swelling, redness at the site where the shot was given or a fever.

Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.

  • Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine for pain and fever, such as acetaminophen or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Because of the risk for Reye syndrome, do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 18 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Put an ice pack on the area where the shot was given for 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day for the first 24 to 48 hours. After 48 hours, heat may feel better.

Talk to your doctor or public health nurse before you give medicine to reduce a fever in a baby who is 3 months of age or younger. This is to make sure a young baby's fever is not a sign of a serious illness. The exception is if your baby has just had an immunization. Fevers sometimes occur as a reaction to immunizations. After immunizations, you can give your baby medicine to reduce a fever.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Christine Hahn, MD - Epidemiology

Current as ofMay 4, 2017