What is a tetanus shot?
A tetanus shot is a vaccine. It prevents a life-threatening bacterial infection called tetanus (lockjaw). This infection affects your nervous system. Providers call the ingredient in the shot tetanus toxoid.
Babies, children and adults of all ages need doses of the tetanus vaccine at different times throughout their lives. Providers give you or your child the shot using a thin needle, usually in the upper arm or thigh. The shot may include only the tetanus vaccine or it may include other vaccines in a single shot.
How do tetanus shots work?
A tetanus shot works by stimulating your immune system to create an immune response. When you receive the tetanus toxoid in a shot, your immune system responds by creating antibodies. Antibodies are proteins in the body that fight specific disease-causing bacteria.
When you’re vaccinated against tetanus, your immune system is ready to protect you if you’re ever exposed to the Clostridium tetani bacteria. If the bacteria get into your skin, your antibodies recognize and attack them so they can’t make you sick.
The tetanus shot contains inactivated (killed) bacteria. Because the shot doesn’t have live bacteria, it can’t give you tetanus.
What does a tetanus shot prevent?
A tetanus shot protects you from tetanus, which is a dangerous infection. There’s no cure for tetanus.
The Clostridium tetani bacteria cause tetanus. These bacteria live in soil, dirt and feces (poop). They get into your skin through a cut or scratch, leading to infection. Tetanus is not contagious (you can’t catch it from another person).
Symptoms of tetanus include:
- Lockjaw (tightening or “locking up” of the neck or jaw muscles), which can make it difficult to swallow, speak and breathe. Muscles all over the body can also stiffen.
- Fast heart rate and hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Fever and excessive sweating.
- Muscle spasms that most often occur in the stomach. But they can happen all over the body. They can be so forceful that they cause bones to break.
- Paralysis (the inability to move).
When should I get a tetanus shot?
People of all ages need tetanus shots at different times in their lives. Adults need a tetanus shot (tetanus booster) every 10 years. A booster shot is another dose of a vaccine that you get months or years after a previous dose. Providers call it a booster shot because it “boosts” your immune system again and helps your body protect you from illness.
If you’re pregnant, you’ll need a tetanus shot during the third trimester of each pregnancy to protect you and the fetus. Children and adults should be up to date on all routine vaccines (including tetanus) before traveling outside the United States.
Babies and kids need six doses of the tetanus shot while they’re growing up. They should get one dose at:
- 2 months old.
- 4 months old.
- 6 months old.
- Between 15 and 18 months old.
- Between 4 and 6 years old.
- Between 11 and 12 years old.
Providers also give tetanus shots to people after they cut or puncture their skin, especially if the cut is deep. Although many people think you get tetanus from stepping on a rusty nail, any wound that opens the skin can cause tetanus. Your provider may recommend a tetanus booster shot if you have a cut and you either:
- Don’t know your immunization history (it’s safe to get an additional shot early if needed).
- Got your last tetanus dose more than 10 years before the wound.
- Have had fewer than three doses of the tetanus shot.
What are the types of tetanus shots?
Providers use different kinds of shots to protect children and adults from tetanus. Most types are combination shots, so they also protect against other diseases. If you’re getting a booster shot, your provider may give you a vaccine that contains only the tetanus toxoid.
Babies and children under 7 may receive their routine vaccination containing the:
- DT vaccine, which protects against diphtheria and tetanus.
- DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough).
Older children, teenagers and adults may receive the:
- Td vaccine, which protects against tetanus and diphtheria.
- Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).
How effective are tetanus shots?
Tetanus shots are very effective. During World War II, providers started making the tetanus shot available to everyone in the United States. It’s now rare for people to get the tetanus infection in the U.S. Since the 1940s, deaths from tetanus have dropped by 99%.
What are the risks of a tetanus shot?
Tetanus shots are safe. Complications are very rare. They may include:
- Allergic reaction to tetanus toxoid or another ingredient in the shot.
- Severe muscle weakness and pain.
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
- Vision changes.
- Very rarely, babies and children have serious side effects from the DTaP vaccine, such as:
- Continued, inconsolable crying (usually for more than a few hours).
- Fever over 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).
What are the side effects of a tetanus shot?
Tetanus shot side effects are usually mild. They include:
- Body and muscle aches.
- Fussiness (in babies).
- Loss of appetite.
- Low grade fever (between 100.4 degrees F and 102.2 degrees F, or 38 degrees C and 39 degrees C).
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
- Swelling, pain and redness at the injection site.
Who should not get a tetanus shot?
Most people can safely get the tetanus vaccine. If you or your child had a serious reaction to a tetanus shot in the past, talk to your provider before getting another dose. People who are allergic to any of the components of a tetanus shot should avoid getting another one.
Before getting the tetanus vaccine, tell your provider if you have:
- A bleeding disorder.
- Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which is a disorder of the immune system.
- Had seizures in the past.
- A history of a severe reaction to a pertussis, diphtheria or a tetanus shot.
- Problems with your nervous system.
- Recently had transplant surgery.
Also, tell your provider about any medications you take. Some drugs might interact with the tetanus shot. These include:
- Drugs that treat cancer.
- Immunosuppressant medications.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Tetanus shots are very effective at protecting you and your child from tetanus, a life-threatening infection. It’s important to stick to the immunization schedule your child’s provider recommends. This vaccination schedule helps keep your child healthy and offers them the best protection from tetanus. If you’re an adult, talk to your provider about getting a tetanus booster every 10 years. Be sure to keep accurate shot records for you and your children so you can stay up to date on immunizations.
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