Keep tetanus immunizations current

As you make your gardening New Year's resolutions, think about getting a tetanus shot. Almost one-third of tetanus cases result from gardening or farming injuries. Even minor scrapes can cause a tetanus infection. According to the Center for Disease Control, five of the most common injuries that put gardeners at risk are lawnmower accidents, falls from a ladder, chain saw injuries, splinters and deep puncture wounds from thorns and brambles.

Every time I work in the yard, I get poked by roses or scraped by rocks or branches. Every time this happens, I am exposed to tetanus. I keep my shot current because the pictures I have seen of tetanus show it to be a very painful disease.

Symptoms of tetanus include headache, muscle spasms, lockjaw, neck stiffness, trouble swallowing, muscle rigidity, seizures and possible death. A person with tetanus may also experience a fever, elevated blood pressure and sweating. Spasms can occur frequently and last several minutes. The spasms could continue for three to four weeks, and complete recovery may take months.

Tetanus is caused by bacteria that can enter through a scrape, cut or puncture wound. It incubates for three to 21 days, but onset usually occurs within eight days. The farther the injury site is from the central nervous system, the longer the incubation period will be. The shorter the incubation period is, the greater the chance of death resulting. Death usually only occurs in unimmunized people or those who have let their immunization lapse.

Tetanus is preventable by proper immunization. Gardeners should keep current on their immunizations. The Center for Disease Control recommends that adults receive a booster vaccine every 10 years. Although a person with a puncture wound may receive a tetanus shot as a precautionary measure, it can take up to two weeks for the antibodies to form, so the patient could still contract tetanus.

There is a myth that rusty metals, such as nails, can cause tetanus. Rusty nails don't cause tetanus, but they can harbor the bacteria.

Why are gardeners so at risk? We work in hot, damp areas, in soils rich in organic matter, often enriched with manures of horses, sheep, cattle or chickens. However, the feces of dogs, cats, rats and guinea pigs also harbor the tetanus bacteria. Human adults may also harbor the organism, especially those who live in agriculture areas.

Be safe. Get your tetanus booster today.

For more information on gardening, contact me, 887-2252 or, or your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at "Ask a Master Gardener" by e-mailing

-- JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension Educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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