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Tetanus

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if you have questions regarding whether your tetanus immunization is current.

If you have a wound, you should seek medical attention. If you are not immunized or have not kept up your booster every 10 years, any open wound is at risk of developing tetanus.

When to go to the hospital

Most doctors can care for minor wounds with mild degrees of contamination. In addition, most doctors maintain tetanus vaccines in their offices and can update anyone who is inadequately immunized. Call your doctor and follow his or her advice regarding whether or not you should seek treatment in a hospital's emergency department after an injury or wound.

If the wound is large, crushed, or heavily contaminated, you should go to the nearest hospital's emergency department for evaluation. Occasionally both a tetanus booster and tetanus antibodies are required if you have any wound that is tetanus-prone. Tetanus antibodies are reserved for people with incomplete immunizations with a tetanus-prone wound.

If you have a recent injury and are starting to complain of muscle cramps or spasms at or near the injury, you should go to a hospital’s emergency department.

If you have trouble swallowing or have muscle spasms in the facial muscles, go to the emergency department for treatment.

Self-Care at Home

Any wound that results in a break in the skin should be cleaned with soap and running water.

All open wounds are at risk to get tetanus. Wounds from objects outdoors or crush injuries are at higher risk.

Apply a clean and dry cloth to stop or minimize bleeding.

Apply direct pressure to the site of bleeding to help minimize blood loss.

Follow-up

People who recover from tetanus have no long-lasting effects.

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Prevention

All partially immunized as well as unimmunized adults should receive a tetanus vaccination.

The initial series for adults involves 3 doses:

  • The first and second doses are given 4-8 weeks apart.
  • The third dose is given 6 months after the second.
  • Booster doses are required every 10 years after that.

In children, the immunization schedule calls for 5 doses. Tetanus is included in a combination vaccine (DTaP) composed of vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough).

  • One dose each at 2, 4, 6, and 15 months of age.
  • This series is completed with a final dose between 4-6 years.
  • Additional boosters are given every 10 years after that.

People who are not completely immunized who have a tetanus-prone wound should receive a tetanus booster in addition to tetanus antibodies. The tetanus antibodies will provide short-term protection against the disease.

Outlook
  • Overall, 25-50% of people with generalized tetanus will die.
  • The disease is more serious when the symptoms come on quickly.
  • Older people and very young children tend to have more severe cases.
  • Intensive medical care improves the prognosis in severe cases.
  • Death is usually due to respiratory failure or disturbance of heart rhythm.

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