How Often Do I Need a Tetanus Booster Shot?

Current Recommendations and Practices

If you haven't had a tetanus booster shot in the past decade, you're probably overdue. When you are initially vaccinated for tetanus as a child, the vaccine will be bundled with other vaccines and given as a series of regularly scheduled shots. The immune protection afforded by the tetanus component, however, doesn't last forever. A booster shot every 10 years is recommended.

Doctor injecting vaccination in arm of little child girl
Sasiistock/Getty Images. ​ 

Tetanus shots are also given on demand if you get a deep, dirty cut (such as from stepping on a rusty nail) as a standard precaution.

But, it's not just rusty nails you have to worry about. The bacteria that causes tetanus is found in many parts of the environment, and you can be exposed through any open wound. That is why it's important to stay up to date on your booster shots.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tetanus is rare in the United States. Only around 30 cases are reported each year, almost all of which involve adults who were never vaccinated or given their 10-year booster.

What Is a Tetanus Shot?

A tetanus shot (also known as tetanus toxoid) is a vaccine used to prevent tetanus. It can be given on its own in the event of a possible exposure but is typically bundled with at least one other vaccine. These include vaccines used to prevent the bacterial infections diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).

There are four versions used for childhood or booster vaccination:

  • DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) for children under 7
  • DT (diphtheria, tetanus) for children under age 7
  • Tdap (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) for booster vaccinations for older children and adults
  • Td (diphtheria, tetanus) for booster vaccinations for older children and adults
The Schedule of DTaP Shots for Kids
Verywell / JR Bee

About Tetanus

Tetanus, also known as "lockjaw," is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani found in soil, dust, and animal feces. Once C. tetani enters the body, it secretes susbstances called tetanospasmin and tetanolysin that are toxic to the nervous system).

The toxins can cause severe and painful muscle spasms and contractions, leading to a cascade of potentially life-threatening symptoms, including:

After exposure, it can take anywhere from three to 21 days for symptoms to develop. The timing depends largely on the extent and duration of the wound contamination. The average incubation period is 10 days.

If left untreated, tetanus symptoms can lead to bone fractures, pulmonary embolism, aspiration pneumonia, and asphyxiation. It causes death in between 10% and 20% of people with symptomatic disease, mainly older people.

Booster Recommendations

The protection afforded by some vaccines lasts longer than others. While some will last for a very long time, such as the hepatitis B vaccine, others need routine supplementation as the immune "memory" begins to wane.

Those that tend to need boosting are inactivated vaccines made from a killed bacterium or virus (as opposed to live attenuated vaccines made from a weakened live bacterium or virus). Tetanus vaccines are made from inactivated tetanus toxoid.

Every 10 years, you should get a tetanus booster from your doctor, either in the form of the Tdap or Td vaccine.

Due to the rise of whooping cough—such has been seen in California—many doctors have been giving Tdap shots to teens and adults at least once during their routine 10-year booster schedule. Normally, booster shots are for tetanus and diphtheria alone.

Public health authorities also recommend a booster shot if you get a particularly nasty, open wound and it has been five years or more since your last tetanus shot (or you are unaware of your vaccination status).

Depending on how bad the injury is, you may also get a straight shot of the tetanus vaccine without the other vaccines.

DTaP Immunization Schedule

The first DTaP immunizations start when children are between 6 weeks and 2 months old. The schedule of DTaP shots for young children typically follows this guideline:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 to 18 months
  • 4 to 6 years

Adolescents get a booster Tdap shot at around 11 to 12 years. If they miss this, it is okay for them to get a Tdap between 13 and 18 years.

It is recommended that adults get a Tdap shot for one of their tetanus boosters. If you're over 65, you may not need the Tdap shot but can get one if your doctor believes it appropriate.

Transmission Risk

Many of us were taught that you get tetanus from rusty nails, but it has more to do with the dirt on the nail rather than the rust. Since the spores that caause tetanus are everywhere, you can get the disease in a lot of different ways.

The spores of C. tetani commonly found in soil and animal feces can remain inactive but infectious for up to 40 years. The spores can get into your body through any break in the skin, including cuts, punctures, burns, animal or human bites, and crush injuries.

Public health authorities will often offer tetanus boosters after a natural disaster, including floods. This is a precautionary measure the mitigate the increased risk of tetanus infection.

Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person.

A Word From Verywell

Tetanus is a serious disease that can be caused by any number of common injuries. Because it is rare in the United States does not mean you should not vaccination recommendations seriously.

If you get a cut worthy of stitches, a tetanus shot should always be considered. The shot itself causes little pain and few side effects other than injection site soreness and possibly mild fever and body aches (which tend to resolve within a day).

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Article Sources
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