Tetanus: Still a Big Threat?
While walking barefoot on the beach, I cut my foot on something (I'm not sure what). The cut wasn't very deep, and I'm pretty sure I'm up-to- date on my tetanus shot, but what might happen if I'm not? What exactly is tetanus?
Tetanus (also known as lockjaw) is caused by a toxin which is produced by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. It is a nasty disease with a high mortality rate -- about 30 percent of those who get the disease die from it. The incubation period can range from three to 21 days, and the most common symptom is jaw stiffness. However, restlessness, trouble swallowing, irritability, headache, fever, sore throat, chills, muscle spasms, and stiffness in the neck, arms, and legs are also associated with the illness. Tetanus is not contagious from person to person.
Tetanus can be found just about any place where there is soil -- and it can live there for a very long time. I've heard that active bacteria have been grown from spores in the dirt found in the pyramids. Thanks to immunization, contracting tetanus is rare in the United States these days. Your protection against tetanus is combined with your vaccination against diphtheria, another disease we don't see much anymore. Tetanus is most prevalent in densely populated regions during the summer months -- particularly in hot, damp climates. Intravenous drug users, people who have suffered burns, and those who have just had surgery are most at risk for the illness -- but anyone can get it. For this reason (and because tetanus is so dangerous) it is very important to keep current on your immunization. All adults should have a booster shot every ten years. If you can't recall your last booster, you should consider getting one.
If you've had a shot in the past five years, you really don't have to worry that a cut can lead to a tetanus infection. But it is important to clean any wound thoroughly as soon as possible. Deep puncture wounds are the most worrisome if you haven't kept up your immunization. During 1995-1997, acute injuries such as punctures, lacerations, and abrasions accounted for 64 percent of reported cases of tetanus. Thirteen of those with acute injuries reported stepping on a nail. Other acute injuries included self-performed body piercing and tattooing, animal bites, and splinters.
If tetanus develops, the illness is treated with tetanus immune globulin (to neutralize the toxin) and medications to relax the muscles and prevent seizures. Anyone unlucky enough to develop tetanus will still need to be immunized after recovering, because having the disease won't protect you against future infections.