It’s Not Just a Ritual



“It has been over 10 years- we can give you your tetanus booster before you leave today,” my medical assistant cheerfully remarked as she recorded the vital signs.

“Um, okay, I guess so…  if I’m due. Sure,” my patient awkwardly replied.  Not sure if it was an extra bonus to the visit or an unwelcome surprise, my patient considered the scene unfolding and thought, “I’m here because I have a cough-  I didn’t realize I would be getting a shot in the arm today.”

Since a tetanus booster is given every ten years to protect against an uncommmon disease, getting the shot may seem almost as if it is a ritual.  Yet most people somehow know that tetanus is a disease worth preventing, and tetanus boosters are often readily accepted by patients. Staying up to date on your tetanus booster is a wise decision:

1.  The vaccine provides immunity to the toxin, but not the bacteria.  Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that makes the tetanus toxin, is just as prevalent in our world today as it was in 1938 when the tetanus vaccine first became available. In fact, the bacteria is present in 30% of American soil samples, while up to 40% of American livestock have the bacteria present in their stool. There’s a good chance that throughout your life you have been- or will be- exposed to the tetanus bacteria.  But thanks to the vaccine, the bacteria’s toxin will not harm you. 

2.  The tetanus toxin, which is called “tetanospasmin,” is one of the most potent toxins on a weight basis known to humans. The tiny amount of 2.5 nanograms per kilogram, is enough to cause death.  To give perspective, the weight of a nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.

3. Preventing tetanus is well worth the effort because the disease is truly devastating. The toxin causes muscles to become painfully rigid, in which legs straighten, arms become flexed, and the face becomes contorted. A person with tetanus becomes unable to breath as the muscles that move the lungs become paralyzed. The mind is unaffected while one’s body stiffens out of control.

4.  The highest risk of infection and succumbing to tetanus is in individuals whose tetanus boosters have gone overdue, most commonly older adults. Don’t let this happen to you.

5. Finally, getting a tetanus booster is a two for one bonus package; the tetanus booster also includes protection from diphtheria. A tetanus booster is “Td”, tetanus and diphtheria. The diphtheria bacteria causes a severe airway infection, and like the tetanus vaccine, the diphtheria vaccine provides immunity to the bacteria’s toxin but not the bacteria itself.

Preventing tetanus and diphtheria requires ongoing maintenance because immunity wanes after about ten years. These diseases are rare in the United States today thanks to an outstanding vaccine, but can occur if boosters are neglected. 

The next time you see your healthcare provider and a tetanus booster is recommended, here’s what to say: 

“That’s great- let’s do it!”