Gary L. Pierce
Horticulture Extension Agent, Harnett County
Question: Can I get lockjaw from working in the dirt?
Answer: Yes, this is possible. You can also get it from dusting your furniture. Often called lockjaw, tetanus is a disease of the nervous system. It is caused by nerve toxins of the bacterium called Clostridium tetani. The bacteria are found in 2 forms: as a spore (dormant) or as a vegetative cell (active).
The spores are in soil, dust, and animal waste. In the spore form, C. tetani may remain dormant in the soil. It can remain infectious for more than 40 years.
Tetanus is not a contagious illness. The favorite locations for the bacteria to enter a person are puncture wounds, such as those caused by nails, splinters, or insect bites. Burns, scratches, and IV drug sites are also potential entryways for the bacteria. Most gardeners are more likely to be poked by a nail than a heroin needle (Woodstock gardeners excluded).
Once inside a person, the spores germinate and release active bacteria that multiply and produce a neurotoxin called tetanospasmin. Tetanospasmin selectively blocks inhibitory nerve transmission from the spinal cord to muscles. This causes the muscles to go into severe uncontrollable spasms. The jaw and neck are usually "locked" by muscle spasms, hence the nickname “lockjaw.” Spasmodic contractions can be powerful enough to tear the muscles or cause compression fractures of the vertebrae. In severe cases, the muscles used to breathe can spasm, causing a lack of oxygen to the brain and possibly death.
Although nearly 1 million people contract tetanus each year, the United States averages about 50 cases per year. The key is the tetanus vaccine. Children are required to have this shot. Everybody needs to get one every 7 to 10 years. People over the age of 60 are more likely to contract this disease simply because they are less likely to have up-to-date vaccinations
Keep your vaccinations current. If you can’t remember your last vaccination, then get a tetanus vaccination within 48 hours of an injury. The vaccination may cause some soreness, but a sore arm is better than having your muscles spasm so hard they break vertebrae in your spine.
For more info about tetanus, visit http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001640. If you have questions, consult your physician or county health department. If you don’t have internet access, then call the Extension Office at 910-893-7530 or email me at email@example.com
Emil Adolf von Behring was a German Army doctor in the late 1800s. In 1890, Behring announced his discovery of a diphtheria and tetanus vaccine which he called an antitoxin. He also devised a vaccine (bovovaccine) for immunization of calves against tuberculosis. Behring is now considered the founder of the science of immunology. You could say that Behring made it safe to play in the dirt and dust the house.