Few people can remember their very first tetanus vaccine shot, since it was most likely administered in a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine cocktail during the toddler years. Parents, however, were often told to observe their children after receiving the shot, since extended bouts of crying and some localized pain were known side effects. It's highly likely that the first tetanus vaccine shot you received as a child was just as painful as the booster shots you received as a teen or young adult.
The medical profession does not make a habit of describing certain routine inoculations and vaccines as more or less painful than others. This information, although helpful, might prove to be counterproductive when dealing with sensitive patients. The truth is that the tetanus vaccine is often singled out as a particularly painful shot to receive, and the residual pain can last for days or even weeks. Some people report feelings of numbness in the receiving arm within minutes of getting a tetanus vaccine booster shot. Others claim to feel a sensation like a hard marble at the injection site itself, accompanied by radiating pain throughout their arms, neck and back.
Some also complain of general fatigue and muscle weakness after receiving a tetanus vaccine. The usual course of treatment involves taking OTC painkillers such as Motrin® or ibuprofen until the pain subsides, generally within a few days or a week. More serious reactions to a tetanus vaccine booster shot could be hives, rashes or pronounced muscular weakness.
Why is a tetanus vaccine booster shot so painful? There are a few theories, but no single definitive answer. The nature of the tetanus bacteria itself may have something to do with the amount of pain you experience. Tetanus bacteria live in anaerobic environments, which means places with little to no oxygen. If you were scratched with a rusty nail on the surface of your skin, the chances of developing tetanus would be minimal. The tetanus bacteria would not grow in such an oxygen-rich environment. The danger of developing tetanus increase exponentially if you suffer a deep puncture wound. The tetanus bacteria would thrive in the deep tissues of your body, since they don't ordinarily receive much oxygen.
If you suffer a deep puncture wound, especially one involving dirty or rusty objects, some of the dormant tetanus bacteria might enter your system before the wound can be cleaned out and disinfected. A tetanus vaccine shot does not kill the bacteria directly, but rather strengthens your own body's antibodies against an invasion of tetanus bacteria. It is believed that the injection of tetanus toxoid, the most common form of tetanus vaccine, can create a significant number of antibodies to form, which in turn might contribute to the painful side effects which some people experience.
It used to be a common practice for nurses to warm up the tetanus vaccine by rolling it between their hands before administering the shot. Recent studies, however, indicate that the temperature of the tetanus vaccine had little to no effect on the level of pain or the duration of side effects experienced by patients. Some injections of medication do hurt more than others, perhaps because of their relative acidity or concentration.
There are some experts who are now questioning the need for tetanus vaccine booster shots at all. At one point in history, the standard medical recommendation was annual tetanus vaccine booster shots. This span of time between boosters has been increased over the years, and currently the recommendation is ten years between boosters. This gap may continue to increase, and many adults have abandoned the practice altogether, with minimal consequences to their health.
Even the practice of administering a tetanus vaccine shot following a deep puncture wound has come under some questioning. Tetanus is a very serious disease, with a high mortality rate, but some medical professionals suggest that a very thorough cleansing process reduces the chances of developing tetanus significantly.
What is Tetanus?
Tetanus is a very harmful disease that attacks the nervous system. A bacterium that produces toxins attacks the body and causes muscles to contract, specifically your neck and jaw muscles. Because the disease attacks the neck and jaw muscles, it's often referred to as lockjaw.
While we have vaccines to prevent the disease from progressing, the side effects can be life-threatening if left untreated or you're not vaccinated. If you contract tetanus, treatments will focus on keeping you out of pain and managing the symptoms until the toxin wears off.
Is Tetanus Common in the United States?
Tetanus vaccines are commonplace in the United States, so people rarely contract them in the country. Although it's rare, it's not impossible. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there's an average of only 30 tetanus cases reported annually. You're at a higher risk if you're not up to date with tetanus booster vaccines.
Where is Tetanus Common?
Tetanus is the most common in developing countries or wherever people aren't vaccinated or up to date on their vaccines. The majority of tetanus cases, 82% of the world's cases, come from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
History of the Tetanus Vaccine
Tetanus has been around since 1500 B.C. There are writings documenting the symptoms of tetanus back in Ancient Egypt and throughout history. There were ancient remedies for treating the condition, but it wasn't until 1890 that humans saw a tailored treatment for tetanus.
German scientists discovered the vaccine for passive immunity. The tetanus antiserum was the first official treatment for tetanus, but the effects would only last a few weeks at most. It wasn't until 1924 that the tetanus toxoid vaccine came about.
With the invention of the tetanus toxoid vaccine, it wasn't commonplace for everyone to get the vaccine like it is nowadays in the United States. Fourteen years later, in 1938, a new vaccine that's more effective in preventing tetanus was invented.
Because of how dangerous open wounds were in WWII, it was commonly used for soldiers and accounted for a considerable decrease in the number of tetanus cases. By 1992, two new vaccines combine tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis that everyone receives as a child.
How Often Do You Need a Tetanus Vaccine Booster?
After you receive your first round of tetanus vaccines as an infant, it's recommended that you receive a booster every ten years to protect yourself. If you happen to have a wound from something rusty and you're not up to date on your tetanus vaccines, you should seek medical care immediately.
Even if you are up to date, it's still a good idea to seek medical care to clean the wound and receive any preventative care necessary properly.
Reducing Pain From the Tetanus Vaccine
Besides taking over-the-counter pain medication like Advil or Ibuprofen, other methods can help reduce the pain associated with the tetanus vaccine injection site. Even though not everyone experiences pain with the vaccine, it's not pleasant for those who do.
Most people recommend icing the injection site in cycles every few minutes. This can help alleviate the pain and swelling. The pain from the vaccine can last for a few hours to a few days to even weeks.
If your painful symptoms from the tetanus vaccines last for more than a week, you should consult your doctor to ensure nothing more serious is going on.
Who Shouldn't Get the Tetanus Vaccine?
While it's recommended that everyone receive the tetanus vaccine and follow-up boosters every ten years, there are situations where people shouldn't get the vaccine. Unfortunately, experiencing pain after a booster isn't a reason to not continue to get the booster when necessary.
Anyone who has had an allergic reaction to a previous tetanus vaccine should most likely not get a booster. You can consult your physician to assess the risks of a booster. Other people who shouldn't get a tetanus vaccine are people who have a history of seizures, epilepsy, nervous system issues, or have been in a coma before.
Lastly, those who have Guillain-Barre syndrome, a moderate to severe acute illness, or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. If you're at risk for tetanus, you can speak with your doctor to see your options.