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Tetanus: Make Sure You and Your Child Are Fully Immunized

Photo: FeetPlaying outdoors can mean getting cuts that may become infected with bacteria commonly found in soil, including the ones that cause tetanus. Tetanus vaccine can help prevent tetanus disease, commonly known as "lockjaw."

Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria. When the bacteria invade the body, they produce a toxin, or poison, that causes painful muscle contractions. Tetanus infection mainly affects the neck and abdomen. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because it often causes a person's neck and jaw muscles to lock, making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. It can also cause breathing problems, severe muscle spasms, seizures, and paralysis. Complete recovery can take months. If left untreated, tetanus can be fatal.

Photo: Children playing outside.Tetanus is different from other vaccine-preventable diseases in that it does not spread from person to person. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and manure and enter the body through breaks in the skin – usually cuts or puncture wounds. About 3 weeks after exposure, a child might get a headache, become cranky, and have spasms in the jaw muscles. The bacteria can then produce a toxin that spreads through the body causing the painful symptoms of tetanus. The muscle spasms can be strong enough to break a child's bones, and a child might have to spend several weeks in the hospital under intensive care.

Because immunity to tetanus decreases over time, older children need to get the Tdap vaccine. This booster shot contains a full concentration of tetanus and lower concentrations of diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). The Tdap vaccine is recommended for all 11-18 year olds, preferably given to pre-teens going to the doctor for a regular check-up at age 11 or 12 years.


Because immunity to tetanus decreases over time, adults need to get a booster shot every 10 years to stay protected. For adults who haven't gotten Tdap yet, the easiest thing to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it's a good idea for adults to talk to a doctor about what's best for their specific situation. Make sure you and your child are protected against tetanus.

Is Your Child Up to Date on Vaccinations?


To learn more about the VFC program, visit the VFC Web site or ask your child's doctor