When it comes to infections, tetanus is among the more well-known, both to the medical world and society in general. Caused by a bacterium known as Clostridium tetani, tetanus is a toxin that can lead to illness and is a term you may have first heard about getting a tetanus shot from your doctor when you were younger. The tetanus vaccine is very effective and is proven to protect more than 95% of people from the potential of infection for around 10 years, according to estimates from Harvard Medical School. Primary care physicians largely agree that a tetanus shot is highly recommended since the bacteria can come from many different sources, be it dirt, dust, feces or puncture wounds.
That said, contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as getting tetanus from rust. In short, while tetanus is not something to be taken lightly, tetanus from rust is a myth. Here, we'll attempt to unravel the mystery of how the tetanus from rust rumor got started, what sources can really lead to tetanus infection, the resulting symptoms and how you can best protect yourself from illness and long-term health consequences. It goes beyond obtaining a tetanus shot.
Where did the tetanus from rust claim originate?
In some respects, it's not entirely surprising that people ascribed to this notion. As referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tetanus bacteria is naturally occurring. Wherever bacteria exist, clostridium tetani may follow. It can even latch on to random objects, such as nails, tools, needles or knives.
Outside the body, tetanus is harmless. It's when the toxin penetrates the skin that it can become a problem. For example, if an insect has the disease and bites you, it can lead to infection should tetanus enter the bloodstream. This is the same reason why non-sterile needles and IVs can cause a tetanus infection.
Outside the body, tetanus is harmless; it's when the toxin penetrates the skin that it can become a problem."
Have you ever stepped on a nail? As painful as it is, the potential for tetanus can make matters worse, since tetanus lives on pretty much anything. This is another reason why it's important to fully clean a wound.
The fact that nails can become rusty may be the genesis for the tetanus from rust rumor. However, it's not the rust that's the problem; it's the exposed wound that makes a tetanus infection possible.
Speaking to Live Science, Dr. William Schaffner, who specializes in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, offered his theory as to how rust and tetanus got intertwined.
"Somehow, someone conjured up this image of stepping on a rusty nail," Schaffner explained.
He further speculated that if this same image of a nail was corroded, the suspicion is that it came from somewhere where rust can form, such as a dirty, moisture-filled space.
"[But] the environment doesn't have to be visibly dirty," Schaffer added. A fully clean and sterilized knife can still result in tetanus, Schaffer offered.
Bottom line: It's the breaks, fissures or punctures in the skin that can lead to a tetanus infection. It's possible that the tetanus toxin may live on a rusted nail or blade, but it's not the rust in and of itself that produced the tetanus bacterium.
What are the symptoms of a tetanus infection?
While tetanus from rust isn't an actual thing, the symptoms of a tetanus infection are very real, which is why doctors highly recommended obtaining a tetanus vaccine or booster once every 10 years. According to the CDC, some of the most common manifestations of tetanus include:
- Muscle cramping
- Muscle stiffness or soreness
- Changes in blood pressure and pulse rate
- Involuntary muscle spasms
- Jaw clenching (i.e. lockjaw)
The gravity or extent of these symptoms can vary from person to person but are sometimes quite severe. As the CDC points out, an infection can also lead to irregular breathing patterns, where it is difficult to inhale and exhale normally. This may require immediate medical attention to restore normal breathing, perhaps through the use of a ventilator or some other breathing apparatus. Tetanus can also be fatal, killing 10% to 20% of those affected.
Is tetanus treatable?
People can recover from tetanus through a combination of antibiotics, wound care and human tetanus immune globulin. But the best way to protect yourself is with a tetanus vaccine, which as previously mentioned, is highly effective.
You may not be able to get tetanus from rust, but you can get tetanus. A safety-first mentality, sanitation, wound treatment and the tetanus vaccine can keep you protected.