Surprising Ways You Can Get Tetanus — Not Just From Rusty Nails

Work in your home garden puts you at risk

Surprising Ways You Can Get Tetanus -- Not Just From Rusty Nails

When the sun is shining, you can’t wait to get out and work in the garden. But before you get your hands dirty, ask yourself a question. When was your last tetanus shot?

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A tetanus shot is only good for ten years. If it’s been more than that since your last tetanus shot, don’t go to the garden. Go to your doctor. You may be at risk for a deadly disease that has no cure: tetanus.

Most people link tetanus with rusty nails. But tetanus is everywhere. It in soil, dust and animal waste. You can get it from insect bites, animal bites, scratches, or tiny crack in the skin. And more than 30 percent of all tetanus injuries occur in the garden.

Tetanus does not always involve noticeable punctures

Infectious disease specialist Susan Rehm, MD, tells of a home gardener recently admitted with an advanced case of tetanus. The patient didn’t know how he had contracted the disease. He had no visible punctures. Then a close examination of his hands revealed the culprit. There was an almost invisible splinter in the pad of his thumb.

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Fortunately the patient survived. But only after six months in intensive care. Not all patients are so lucky. Nearly ten percent of cases in North America are fatal. In non-western societies, the death rate is much higher.

Tetanus is hard to diagnose. Here’s how it starts. The spores of the tetanus bacteria enter the bloodstream through a break in the skin. They thrive and germinate inside the body. The germinating spores produce a toxin that disrupts the nervous system. It first affects the nerves nearest to the break in the skin. Then it spreads to the spinal cord and brain. Within five to ten days, tetanus shows its most frightening symptom – lockjaw.

The patient’s neck stiffens. There is difficulty swallowing. The abdomen grows rigid. As the toxins spread, general muscle spasms begin. These symptoms can go on for weeks. Once tetanus is underway, there is no stopping it. Tetanus can only be managed. It can’t be cured.

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The good news about tetanus

The good news is that tetanus is easy to prevent. There is a highly effective vaccine. It delivers full immunity from tetanus. It is first administered in a series of three shots. After that it needs to be renewed with a single booster, every ten years.

Dr. Rehm advises patients to receive at least one dose of Tdap – the tetanus/diphtheria vaccine that also protects against whooping cough (pertussis). Adults ages 19 to 64 years should receive this one-time booster vaccine.

In addition to protecting adults against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough, Tdap immunization of adults protects infants they may come into contact with against whooping cough. Adults over age 64 years should also receive a booster vaccine if they will come into close contact with infants younger than 12 months old.

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