Do adults really need tetanus booster shots?

If you haven’t had a tetanus booster shot in the past decade, your doctor may recommend getting one. Many people think of a tetanus shot as something you only need if you step on a rusty nail. Yet even in the absence of a puncture wound, this vaccine is recommended for all adults at least every 10 years. But why? A group of researchers recently questioned whether you need to repeat tetanus vaccines on a regular schedule.

What is a tetanus booster?

Booster shots are repeat vaccinations you receive after your first series of immunizations as a child. Protection from certain vaccines can wane over time, which is why doctors advise boosters. The tetanus vaccine is not just for tetanus though. It’s bundled with a vaccine for diphtheria and sometimes one for pertussis (the bacteria that causes whooping cough).

What are tetanus and diphtheria?

Tetanus and diphtheria are rare but serious diseases that can cause severe complications in those infected.

Tetanus, sometimes known as “lockjaw,” is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Clostridium tetani. When this bacteria invades the body, it can produce a toxin that leads to painful muscle tightening and stiffness. In severe cases, it can lead to trouble breathing, seizures, and death. Tetanus does not spread from person to person. Usually it enters the body through contaminated breaks in the skin — stepping on a nail that has the bacteria on it, for example. There are about 30 reported cases of tetanus in the US each year. These cases almost always occur in adult patients who have never received a tetanus vaccine, or adults who have not been up to date on their 10-year booster shots.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by a type of bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Diphtheria can cause a thick covering on the back of the throat and may lead to difficulty breathing, paralysis, or death. It typically spreads person-to-person. There have been fewer than five cases reported to the CDC in the past 10 years.

What are the current vaccine recommendations?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends tetanus vaccines for people of all ages. Adolescents and adults receive either the Td or Tdap vaccines. These vaccines protect over 95% of people from disease for

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