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Tetanus, also called “lockjaw,” differs from other diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations because it isn’t spread from person to person. Most often contracted when the skin is cut or punctured, tetanus can occur when an object is contaminated with bacteria from soil, dust or manure. Rusty nails are common sources of tetanus, as well as accidental needle sticks among healthcare workers.

Symptoms of tetanus include:

  • Headache
  • Jaw cramping
  • Sudden, involuntary muscle tightening (often in the stomach)
  • Painful muscle stiffness throughout the body
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Seizures
  • Fever and sweating
  • High blood pressure and fast heart rate

Complications from tetanus can range from involuntary muscular contraction of the vocal cords to pneumonia.

Being fully immunized is the best way to prevent tetanus. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends 5 doses of diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis (DTaP) vaccine for infants and children. One dose of DTaP vaccine is recommended at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 through 18 months, and 4 through 6 years old.

Teens and adults must be immunized, too. If you’ve not had a booster shot in 10 years or more, you should receive the Tdap vaccine as soon as possible. It also protects against pertussis, also known as “whooping cough,” a highly contagious respiratory disease. If you never had the initial childhood tetanus vaccines, it is advised that you receive a series of three tetanus shots. Expectant mothers should be given the Tdap during the third trimester.

It’s important to discuss your immunization schedule with your physician. And if you receive an injury and are not sure whether you’re protected from tetanus, seek medical advice immediately.

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