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Let's Learn About Tetanus

The disease that puts the T in DTaP

Why We Vaccinate

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. This month, we are educating about vaccine-preventable diseases and the ways you can protect yourself and your family from them. Vaccines are #savinglivessilently.

If you ask most people about tetanus, they may recall it has something to do with “lock jaw” and that is about it. So what IS the disease that is the “T” in DTaP and why is it important to vaccinate against it?

Tetanus is a nervous system disorder that causes severe muscle spasms. It is caused when a spore that is in the soil, known as Clostridium tetani, gets into damaged skin. It will not grow in healthy tissues, which is why things such as splinters and other puncture wounds, burns, and certain fractures put the body at risk for it. Once inside the body it produces a toxin that irreversibly attaches to the spinal cord and brain stem, and after a few days the symptoms begin.

I can’t imagine many diseases that would make me feel more helpless than if I watched my child in the grips of tetanus. It starts with restlessness, sweating, and rapid heartbeat. Later it progresses to the inability to open the mouth due to muscle spasms (lock jaw). They have episodes of intense and painful contraction of muscles and intense muscle spasms that can be triggered by stimuli such as physical touch, light, or sound. It would be so terrible to try to comfort my child and triggering an episode of them arching their back, clenching their hands, straightening their legs, and holding their breath. The worst part is that there is no change in their awareness, they know it is happening, and they know that it hurts.

The muscles surrounding the throat and lungs can even stiffen to the point that they may need help breathing as well. They are usually monitored in the intensive care unit due to this, and also for the need to control pain.

An intensive care doctor told us the story of a young unvaccinated child with tetanus: “She was walking outside with her parents in a large field, and cut her foot on something. Soon after, she started having muscle spasms in her calves. They got more and more intense, so her parents brought her to the hospital.” The child ended up needing intensive treatment, including numerous rounds of painful treatment injections. The parents finally realized how important vaccination was when she was transferred to the ICU because there was concern she would need assistance with her breathing.

How long can the symptoms last? A long time. The toxin attaches to the nerve and requires the new nerve growth until symptoms resolve, usually around 4-6 weeks. The main treatment is trying to control the pain, and ensuring they continue to breathe.

The bad news is that we can’t eliminate the element in the soil that causes tetanus, and we certainly can’t protect our children from open wounds.

But we CAN give them a vaccination that can prevent this terrible disorder!

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About the author

Sperry Binnicker is a nurse practitioner at Willow Park. Sperry joined Cook Children's in 2009 in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). In that role, she earned the Daisy Award, an award given to a nurse that is nominated and selected by the parents of patients for excellence in patient care. She continued her education while working full time and received her master’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in May of 2015.She is a Board Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and a member of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. Learn more about the Willow Park staff here.