Q: I stepped on a nail and am wondering if I need a tetanus shot. My last shot was 5 years ago.
A: You should probably get a tetanus shot in this case. Tetanus vaccines are given to children in the USA with a series of 5 childhood shots called the DTaP. The vaccine covers diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. A booster that contains vaccines to all three diseases is given between the ages of 11 and 18. After that, it is recommended that adults get the Tdap booster vaccine every 10 years, and sooner (every 5 years) if there is an injury.
Puncture wounds from objects like nails and bites are most susceptible to infection with tetanus. However, you can also get tetanus from any exposure to soil, including minor cuts, scrapes, and burns, and sometimes with no injury at all.
Once the tetanus bacteria get into your tissues, it starts creating toxins. These toxins interfere with nerves, which leads to spasms, contractions, and respiratory failure. We take this disease seriously because it is potentially deadly but very preventable.
It is important to take care of a skin wound to prevent infection. The first steps should be to clean the wound with soap and water. Use an antibiotic cream and keep the wound covered with a bandage until it scabs over. Remember to change the dressing daily or it becomes wet or dirty, and seek care if the wound is getting more red or painful, or if you have other concerns.
FINAL SUMMARY – if you get hurt, consider getting a tetanus shot if it has been more than 5 years since your last booster, and keep your tetanus protection up-to-date every ten years.
We provide the tetanus vaccine and many others here at the Student Health Center, so you can always come in and see us to get one.
Adam Brandeberry, Med IV (OSU COM)
Roger Miller, MD (OSU Preventive Medicine)