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How long does a tetanus shot last?

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Updated May 20, 2014

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Question: How long does a tetanus shot last?
From a reader: "Everything that I have read says you are good to go for 10 years after a tetanus shot. I know that if it's been eight or nine years since your last tetanus and you are pretty mangled in a car wreck or whatever - they will give you a tetanus update. What's the scoop? How long does a tetanus shot last?"
Answer: Ten years. But you know a straightforward answer from me is never truly that simple.

Tetanus shots aren't just tetanus shots. They're almost always bundled with some other vaccine unless you're getting the shot because of a deep, dirty cut. The most common vaccines are diptheria and pertussis (whooping cough). In the past, these were referred to as DPT shots (diptheria, pertussis and tetanus). Lately, theve been referred to as DTaP (original vaccine) or Tdap (one version of the booster vaccine). The initials refer to tetanus, diptheria and acellular pertussis. They're all a little bit different.

What's a Booster?

Boosters are what you get after you've received the first vaccination series as a kid. Every 10 years you should be getting a tetanus booster from your doctor. Right now, because of the rise of whooping cough -- in California especially -- docs are giving Tdap shots to teens and adults at least once for their 10-year booster. For the rest of the time, boosters are just tetanus and diptheria (Td). Authorities also recommend a booster shot if you get a particularly nasty open wound (laceration, penetration or avulsion) 5 years or later after your last tetanus shot. Depending on how nasty, you may also get a straight shot of tetanus vaccine without the other stuff.

What Tetanus Shots Do We Actually Need?

The first immunizations for tetanus, diptheria and pertussis (the DTaP shots) start when kids are only 2 months old (definitely no earlier than 6 weeks). The schedule of DTaP shots that little kids should get looks like this:

  1. 2 months
  2. 4 months
  3. 6 months
  4. 15-18 months (could get it as early as 12 months)
  5. 4-6 years (right about kindergarten time)

Adolescents get a booster Tdap shot at around 11-12 years (if they miss it, it's OK for them to get Tdap between 13-18 years).

Adults should get a Tdap shot for one of their tetanus boosters. The others will all be Td shots. Remember, you need a tetanus booster every 10 years. If you are over 65 years old you might not need the Tdap shot, but you can still get one. You should talk to your doctor.

What Is Tetanus Anyway?

Tetanus is from a bacteria found in soil called Clostridium tetani. Tetanus is also known as Lockjaw. The disease affects the nervous system and leads to muscle spasms. It doesn't just lock your jaw closed, but that's what it's mostly known for. Besides not being able to open your mouth, tetanus causes:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Neck stiffness
  • Muscle cramps in the abdomen (spasms will be in the muscles of the abdominal wall, not in the gut)

Eventually, tetanus can lead to seizures. It causes death in 10-20% of all patients, most of those are older people rather than younger folks.

I was always taught growing up that you get tetanus from rusty nails, but it has more to do with the dirt on the nail than the rust. The good news is that you can't get tetanus from someone else.

The bottom line: if you do get a cut worthy of stitches, you might need to have a tetanus shot, too. The doctor that sews you up should be able to decide if you need a tetanus shot or not. If she offers one, I recommend taking it.

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