Tetanus and the Gardener

Jim Seymour
Carroll County Master Gardener Program

Gardening, perhaps could be considered one of the safest hobbies one could pursue. After all just how risky is potting a plant, tossing some compost with a pitchfork or even pruning the berry bushes be? It sure isn't skydiving or hang gliding by any means. So we're almost perfectly safe aren't we? 


There is a bacteria that may enter the body through a puncture wound or scratch. Just the type wounds we receive every day while working garden or eventually will. It's the tetanus bacteria and it thrives only in the absence of oxygen. Tetanus bacteria are found everywhere in the environment - - the soil, street dust, and in animal intestines and feces - natural immunity to the disease is rare. Think back to when our mother's said scary things about stepping on a rusty nail.

Any puncture wound, especially one that is deep, can be infected with tetanus. Animal scratches and bites, animal feces and saliva and the soil are all potential breeding grounds for tetanus. Infection can develop in wounds in which the flesh is torn or burned or wounds or as trivial as thorns or splinters.

Since adults 50 years or older account for 70 percent of tetanus infections, mature people should make certain they have received boosters within the last 10 years. If they don't know whether they were immunized as children, the primary series of shots should be completed.

Some individuals may be protected for life against tetanus after a properly administered primary series of vaccinations, but in most people antitoxin levels fall with time. This is the purpose of the buster shot every 10 years. "We are now recommending an adult immunization visit at age 50 years" says Roland W. Sutter, M.D. medical epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "when people can check their records to see if they are actually up-to-date with vaccinations, particularly for Td." he continues, "Quite a number of older persons haven't received the primary series. If they haven't been immunized, this visit serves as an opportunity to initiate the series."

In some individuals, antibody levels may fall too low to provide protection before 10 years have passed. That's why people who sustain a deep or contaminated wound should receive a booster does if it has been more than five years since last dose.

Immunization is especially recommended for:

  • Adults, especially those 50 years and older, because most of the tetanus cases in recent years have occurred in this age group

  • persons who are not sure whether they have received the initial series of tetanus shots or boosters

  • travelers, especially to countries with hot, damp climates and soil rich in organic matter

  • agricultural workers and others who work with dirt or manure

  • persons whose jobs or recreational activities expose them to cuts and scrapes

The most frequent symptom is stiff jaw, caused by spasm of the muscle that closes the mouth, accounting for the disease's familiar name "lockjaw." Muscle stiffness all over the body may follow. An infected person may also have other symptoms: difficulty swallowing, restlessness and irritability, stiff neck, arms or legs, fever, headache, and sore throat. As the disease progresses, the victim may develop a fixed smile and raised eyebrows due to facial muscle spasms.

These are serious symptoms and require immediate medical attention. So if you are about to start your yard work make sure you are current on your immunization schedule. Please consult with your family doctor right away in the event of an injury. If you want to get up to date visit the Adult Immunization Clinic for your booster.

For more information about tetanus please see the National Institute of Health website: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tetanus.html

Read other articles by Jim Seymour