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Who Needs a Tetanus Shot, and Which Vaccines Should Everyone Get?

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If you’ve ever stepped on a rusty nail, you’ve probably gotten a tetanus shot to prevent a serious infection. The bacteria that cause tetanus can enter the body through cuts, puncture wounds, burns, or animal bites

Preteens need six vaccine doses to protect them from tetanus—and these vaccines also protect against diphtheria and whooping cough. As an adult, you can maintain a vital vaccination schedule to guard against tetanus and other infections.

The effects of tetanus

Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that cause tetanus, live in the soil—and produce a toxin that can lead to intense muscle cramping and spasms in the jaw or abdomen, stiffness in muscles throughout the body, trouble breathing, headache, fever, seizures, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and even paralysis. These muscle contractions give tetanus its nickname—lockjaw—because the painful effects in the neck and jaw muscles can limit the ability to open your mouth or swallow. Up to 20% of tetanus sufferers die from the infection, and those who survive may need months to recover from its effects.

Vaccinating your child against tetanus

Your child’s pediatrician should alert you to the tetanus vaccination schedule for your child, but it’s important to track the inoculation schedule and understand what to do when. Little ones begin with five doses of a diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine at two, four, six, and 15-18 months old, plus a fifth dose between the ages of four to six years. Finally, they need a booster vaccine called Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) when they’re between 11 and 12 years old.

Adults and tetanus vaccines

If you’re not certain whether you received tetanus vaccinations as a child, or if the vaccines weren’t available when you were young, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a shot of Tdap for adults, with follow-up inoculations at 10-year intervals. Women need a Tdap shot during the first trimester of pregnancy, mostly for its protection against whooping cough in the first months after their babies’ births.

Other important vaccinations for adults

Children need a long list of vaccines for problems beyond tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (pertussis) at specific intervals throughout infancy and childhood. These include inoculations against Hepatitis A and B; human papillomavirus (HPV); measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); pneumococcal pneumonia; polio; rotavirus; and varicella (chickenpox). Adults need some of these same vaccines as well. The Menactra, or meningitis ACWY, vaccine is given to adolescents before 6th grade and again before their senior year of high school.

Meningococcal B vaccines are recommended for kids going off to college. Between the ages of 19 and 26, adults need seasonal flu shots, an HPV vaccination, and the tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine.

From age 27 to age 60, flu shots remain essential, as does the tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine, especially for those who didn’t receive a shot in adolescence. At and above age 50, you can protect yourself from shingles with a live-virus Zostavax vaccine—or the new shingles vaccine called Shingrix, which is a killed-virus vaccine with two shots given two to six months apart. Pneumococcal pneumonia vaccines are typically given for people over age 65 and others with chronic underlying conditions such as COPD, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

These aren’t all the inoculations you may need, and if you’re allergic to some of the vaccines, or have other health conditions such as Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome, seizures or nervous-system problems, your healthcare provider may recommend that you skip or postpone various vaccinations. You may need additional shots to protect yourself from illnesses you might encounter during travel.

Vaccinations mean good health

A proper schedule of routine vaccinations helps prevent serious illness at any age. Whether you’re a parent protecting your children or an adult protecting yourself, a shot in the arm can do your lifelong health a world of good.

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