Myth Busters: You need a tetanus shot if you step on a nail.

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Dr. Lee Barnes weighs in on what to do if think you’ve been exposed to tetanus.

A current tetanus vaccination it vital to protect you against illness. While tetanus is rare in the United States, due to vaccination, it can still be fatal if left untreated, especially for infants and the elderly. It is critical to seek medical treatment immediately if you have an injury that may put you at risk for tetanus.

“Tetanus is caused when the spores of the bacteria Clostridium tetani enter your body through an injury or wound. Often times, it is caused by a puncture wound, such as stepping on a nail, burns or a wound that got contaminated,” said White-Wilson Family Medicine Physician, Dr. Lee Barnes.

The tetanus bacteria are found in soil, animal feces and saliva. Tetanus has also been known as lockjaw since some of the primary symptoms are jaw cramping, difficulty swallowing and muscle spasm. While there is not a test to diagnose tetanus, doctors will evaluate a person and look for signs and symptoms that tetanus is present.

Symptoms for tetanus include:

  • Lockjaw or jaw cramping
  • Fever
  • Fast heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Muscle spasms (often in the abdomen)
  • Muscle stiffness and tightening
  • Seizures (jerking or staring)
  • Excessive sweating

“Most cases of tetanus in the United States are amongst people that have not received the tetanus vaccine or are not up to date on their booster shots,” said Dr. Barnes. “If left untreated, tetanus is fatal in up to a fourth of cases. The best way to protect against tetanus is to receive the tetanus vaccination.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends tetanus vaccines from infancy throughout adulthood. Click here for a recommended tetanus vaccination schedule.

Once exposed to tetanus, the incubation period is usually between three and 21 days, depending on the severity of the exposure. Typically, individuals infected with tetanus will start seeing symptoms after 14 days.

“If you have the signs and symptoms of tetanus or think you may be exposed, seek medical attention immediately,” said Dr. Barnes. “Treatment for tetanus may include hospitalization, tetanus vaccination, antibiotics, muscle relaxers for muscle spasms, a medication called human tetanus immune globulin, wound care and in extreme cases, breathing support.”

Call your health care provider right away if you have been injured outdoors, have a wound that has had contact with the soil or if you have not received a tetanus booster in the last 5 years. A variety of new vaccines are available, and they can protect you for other illnesses as well. Talk with your doctor about what options would be best for you.

“Keep in mind tetanus is rare today due to vaccination,” said Dr. Barnes. “It is best to avoid tetanus all together. Adults should stay up to date on their 10-year tetanus booster shots, and follow the recommended vaccination schedule for children.”