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All About Tetanus Shots


Updated May 28, 2014

Nurse getting ready for patient injection
Thomas Tolstrup/Iconica/Getty Images


These days, you may need just a tetanus shot, or a vaccination against tetanus, diptheria and pertussis.

Tetanus is a bacterial infection of the nervous system also known as lockjaw. Symptoms include muscle stiffness, difficulty swallowing, muscle spasms and seizures. Death occurs in approximately 10-20% of those infected but the rate of death is higher in older people.


Diphtheria is an infection that causes a thick covering on the back of the throat. It can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis and death.


Pertussis is an infection also known as whooping cough. It can cause severe coughing spells, vomiting and difficulty speaking and breathing. Up to 5% of adolescents and adults who have pertussis either have complications or are hospitalized as a result of the illness.

Who Needs the Tetanus (Td) Vaccine:

All adults who have not been previously been immunized with at least three doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccine.

Anyone who has an injury or wound that could possible cause tetanus who has not had a vaccine in the past five years.

All adults should have a Td booster every 10 years.

Other Option - Tdap Vaccine:

The Tdap is a vaccine that contains tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The DTaP vaccine, which protects against the same illnesses, is given to infants and children. The Tdap vaccine is now recommended for certain adults.

Who Needs the TDaP Vaccine:

All adults under age 65 who have never received a TDaP vaccine.

Healthcare workers who work in direct patient care and have not received a TDaP vaccine.

Adults in contact with infants under 12 months of age (healthcare workers, childcare providers, parents, grandparents under age 65) who have not had a TDaP vaccine. For this group of people, the Tdap may be given as little as two years after a previous Td booster.

Schedule for the Vaccines:

For Adults: If you have been vaccinated against tetanus in the past, you should have a Td booster every 10 years. It is now recommended that one of those boosters be replaced with a Tdap to provide protection against pertussis. If you have never had a tetanus vaccine, you will need three doses of Td. For adults between the ages of 18 and 64, one of those three doses may be substituted with Tdap.

For Children: Children are vaccinated against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis starting at age 2 months. The DTaP vaccine is used in children and they get a total of 5 doses between the ages of 2 months and 5 years.

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated:

  • Anyone who has had a previous anaphylactic reaction to this vaccine or anything in it.
  • Anyone with a history of encephalopathy within 7 days of receiving a DTP or DTaP vaccine.

Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor if:

  • You have an unstable neurological condition.
  • You have a moderate or severe illness at the time of vaccination.
  • You have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome after receiving any vaccine.
  • You have ever had a severe reaction to a vaccine before.
  • You are pregnant -- these vaccines are considered safe in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Possible Side Effects:

  • Soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site.
  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ache
  • Serious allergic reaction (rare but serious)
  • Deep, aching pain and muscle wasting at the injection site 2-4 days after vaccine administration. (rare but serious)

If you have a serious reaction to a vaccine, contact your healthcare provider or see a doctor right away.


“Summary of Recommendations for Adult Immunization” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 01 April 08.

“Tetanus Disease In-Short (Lockjaw)”Vaccines and Preventable Diseases 04 June 07. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 02 April 08.

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