Why Get Your Tetanus Shot?


I have this friend who bikes to work everyday,
goes hiking in her spare time, and yet… because she’s scared of needles, she refuses
to get a tetanus shot. Here’s why that might be a bad idea. I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science. Tetanus is caused by the bacterium Clostridium
tetani, which lives all around us on things like soil, dust, or rusty nails. When it’s
in the environment, it exists as something called an “endospore,” which is a hibernation-like
state that can last for decades. But once it enters an oxygen-free place, like, say,
the cut on your elbow when you fall off your bike, it starts to replicate and release toxins.
The toxins enter your nervous system, and that’s when things take a really bad turn. One of the early symptoms of the disease is
lockjaw—essentially muscle spasms that make it difficult to speak or eat. Some patients’
faces will freeze into an eerie grin, called “risus sardonicus.” And as the disease
progresses, other parts of the nervous system become affected, as well. It can cause something
called “opisthotonos,” where the back and neck muscles spasm, causing the body to
contort into an arch, and sometimes even breaking bones. Patients can become immobilized, and
have fevers, difficulty breathing, and heart attacks. With medical care, tetanus is treatable,
though recovery can take months, and there’s still around a 10% chance of death. Today in America, most of us are vaccinated
for tetanus as children, which is probably why there was an average of only 29 cases
per year from 2001 to 2008. But the CDC recommends that every 10 years or so, adults re-up their
resistance to the disease with a tetanus “booster shot.” And if the horrifying symptoms I’ve
mentioned so far don’t compel you to get your booster, know that the shot also comes
with a vaccine for diphtheria, and sometimes whooping cough, too! So, that’s a bonus. By the way, whooping cough and tetanus are
both extremely dangerous to newborns, so pregnant women are especially encouraged to get vaccinated
because they can pass on some level of protection to their babies. Listen, do what you need to do to feel happy
and healthy. But if you plan to live an active life and don’t get vaccinated, be prepared
to accept the possibility of tetanus, and the muscles spasms that come with it. Ew.

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