“To obtain good, respectable barbecue, you need to feel like you are at risk for tetanus just by walking in the door.” – my husband (emergency physician, dad, invenomations expert, all around good guy, and devotee of good barbecue)
What is tetanus, exactly? Those of you who enjoy historical literature probably have at least some idea. Commonly known as “lock-jaw”, the clinical manifestations of tetanus are caused by tetanospasmin, a neurotoxin that impairs the function of your motor neurons. Symptoms include fever, increased blood pressure, generalized muscle stiffness, and periodic, excruciatingly painful muscle spasms. This motor dysfunction can lead to difficulty breathing and swallowing, which can interfere with the somewhat important activities of eating, drinking, and, you know, BREATHING. The tetanus vaccine contains inactivated tetanospasmin – key word – inactivated, as in, it cannot cause the symptoms of tetanus. Exposure to this protein allows your body to develop immunity to the bacteria so if it ever does enter a wound, your good old immune system (see post on the immune system) can come kill it off before it does any damage. As with many vaccines, immunity is not lifelong so you need one of these about every 10 years (more often if you’re in the habit of getting deep skin wounds). Good wound care can also help to prevent tetanus but is not a substitute for the vaccine. Clostridium species are spore-formers, which means they can literally form armor around themselves as protection from anti-microbial agents, the little bastards. High risk individuals (and those with confirmed infections) may also be given tetanus immunoglobulin.