If you hear the word “tetanus”, there’s a good chance you’ll have a cringe-inducing vision of stepping on a rusty nail, followed by a swift trip to the hospital. However, this is a bit of a misconception: tetanus doesn’t actually have much to do with rust.
Tetanus is a serious, life-threatening condition caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. People generally become infected with the disease after the bacteria is introduced into a wound. Once inside the body, the bacteria produce a potent neurotoxin called tetanospasmin, which acts on the nervous system, specifically on the nerve cells that control muscle movement.
It’s an especially nasty disease that can result in symptoms like involuntary muscle spasms, painful muscle stiffness, trouble swallowing, and – most noticeably – extreme stiffness in the jaw, aka "lockjaw." Between 10 to 20 percent of cases can prove fatal.
Rust has little to do with it, though. According to McGill University, the main reason we associate tetanus with rust is because the bacteria are typically found in soil that’s rich in rotting organic material like dead leaves, which are also the kind of places you might come across a rusty old nail.
A bacteria-coated nail will also provide the bacteria with the perfect entry point for the infection, should anyone accidentally step on it. However, there’s nothing about the rust that necessarily means the bacteria is lurking.
That said, if you do find yourself with a nasty wound in an outdoor environment, or a rustic setting like an old barn, then tetanus is a serious risk you should be aware of.
Fortunately, treatments are available. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with suspected tetanus should immediately seek emergency care, upon which they will be treated with a medicine called human tetanus immune globulin, intense wound care, drugs to control muscle spasms, and antibiotics. Additionally, there is a tetanus vaccine available, which the CDC recommends for all babies and children. Adults can also get the vaccine, which lasts for approximately 10 years.
Another plus: tetanus is really rare and rates have been steadily declining in the US for several decades. Since 1947, reported tetanus cases have declined by more than 95 percent, and deaths from tetanus have declined by more than 99 percent in the US.
In 2017, a relatively average year in tetanus terms, there were 33 reported tetanus cases and two deaths in the US, according to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. The majority of these sporadic cases of tetanus occur in adults who have not gotten all the recommended tetanus vaccinations.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.