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By: Les Riess, M.D.
As kids, many of us grew up knowing that bare feet should avoid rusty nails at all costs. We knew that rusty nails could cause tetanus -- often called lockjaw.
Tetanus is a dangerous nerve ailment caused when certain bacterial spores -- called Clostridium tetani -- enter the body by way of animal bites, surgical wounds, needle injection sites, burns, ulcers, and by the proverbial rusty nail.
The spores of Clostridium tetani are found most often in cultivated soil. However, the can also be found in house dust, operating rooms, contaminated heroin, animal excrement and the human colon. When the spores enter the body by way of a cut or open wound, they can germinate and produce a toxin, which then enters the blood stream.
This toxin first moves in the blood to the outermost nerves and then works its way inward toward the spine. After one to three weeks, tetanus begins to short-circuit nerve signals and block the relaxation of muscles. This causes sustained muscle contractions, namely the locking of the jaw for which the disease is nicknamed.
Children are now routinely immunized against tetanus, with the first in a series of vaccines starting at two months old and ending at 15 months of age.
The tetanus vaccine works by exposing an individual to a small amount of the tetani bacteria, causing the body to develop immunity to it. The most common side effect is slight discomfort at the injection site. Other more serious side effects are extremely rare. You should contact your doctor if you experience an side effect tat seems unusual or that is extremely bothersome.
The risks caused by the vaccine are far smaller than the risks of the disease itself. Tetanus is painful. It causes spasms and involuntary contractions of the jaw, neck and other muscles. It can cause a ďlockingĒ of the jaw so that a person is unable to open his mouth or swallow. It also causes irritability, lack of appetite and sometimes drooling. Once tetanus has spread in the body, the mortality rate is approximately 40 percent, even in modern medical facilities.
The good news is that because of vaccinations, tetanus is now very rare in the United States. Since childhood immunization laws were passed in the 1970ís only about 50 cases a year are reported in the U.S. This number would be much higher if people were not routinely vaccinated. Itís just that important.
The tetanus vaccine does not remain effective for eternity, however, and after childhood, it is recommended that immunization be repeated every ten years. How long has it been since your last tetanus booster? If it was during the Reagan administration or even before that, itís time to re-protect yourself against this serious disease.
The need for immunizations and the protection they provide doesnít end with childhood. We can and should protect ourselves throughout life from preventable diseases like tetanus. And in the meantime, stay away from rusty nails.
Dr. Riess is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.