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Health Hotline...Tetanus booster needed every 10 years -- for kids and adults

As kids, many of us grew up knowing that bare feet should avoid rusty nails at all costs. We knew that rusty nails could cause tetanus -- often called lockjaw.

Tetanus is a dangerous bacterial infection that causes painful muscle spasms and can lead to death. The bacterial spores -- called Clostridium tetani -- enter the body by way of animal bites, surgical wounds, needle injection sites, burns, ulcers, and by the proverbial rusty nail.

The spores of Clostridium tetani are found most often in cultivated soil. However, they can also be found in house dust, operating rooms, contaminated heroin, animal excrement and the human colon. When the spores enter the body by way of a cut or open wound, they can germinate and produce a toxin, which then enters the bloodstream.

This toxin first moves in the blood to the outermost nerves and then works its way inward toward the spine. After one to three weeks, tetanus begins to short-circuit nerve signals and block the relaxation of muscles. The first symptoms are often a headache and sustained muscle contractions and stiffness, namely the locking of the jaw for which the disease is nicknamed.

Other symptoms of tetanus include: difficulty swallowing, restlessness, irritability, sore throat, sweating, fever, high or low blood pressure, palpitations, seizures and difficulty breathing.

There is no lab test for tetanus. A doctor will usually diagnose tetanus after asking questions about your symptoms and completing a physical exam. Your doctor will want to rule out other causes for your symptoms before making the tetanus diagnosis.

A person with tetanus typically requires hospitalization. There, treatment will include: antibiotics to kill to bacterial infection, a protein called tetanus immunoglobulin, which boosts the body's immune system and medication to decrease muscle spasms.

Thankfully, tetanus can be prevented through immunization and in the U.S. the disease is relatively rare. Children are now routinely immunized against tetanus, with the first in a series of vaccines starting at 2 months old and ending at 15 months of age. Boosters are then needed every 10 years throughout adulthood.

The tetanus vaccine works by exposing an individual to a small amount of the tetani bacteria, causing the body to develop immunity to it. The most common side effect is slight discomfort at the injection site. Other mild side effects can include fever, headache, body aches and fatigue. Other more serious side effects are extremely rare. You should contact your doctor if you experience a side effect that seems unusual or that is extremely bothersome. You cannot get tetanus from the tetanus shot.

The risks caused by the vaccine are far smaller than the risks of the disease itself. Once tetanus has spread in the body severe symptoms and even death can occur.

The good news is that because of vaccinations, tetanus is now very rare in the United States. Since childhood immunization laws were passed in the 1970s only about 50 cases a year are reported in the United States. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in Minnesota, there were two cases reported in 2012, one case in 2011. This number would be much higher if people were not routinely vaccinated.

The need for immunizations and the protection they provide doesn't end with childhood. We can and should protect ourselves throughout life from preventable diseases like tetanus. A tetanus booster is needed every 10 years throughout adulthood to keep you immune from this serious disease.