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Friday, March 6, 2009

"An Ounce of Prevention . . . "

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
When I was about eight years old, and visiting my Granny on her farm in Texas, I stepped on a rusty nail while exploring around back of some old sheds. I limped back up to the house, the inside of my shoe squishy with blood. Mom washed my foot with soap and hot water, checking to make sure no debris was left inside the deep puncture wound. Then Granny sat me down in the kitchen, my foot soaking in a pan filled with hot water and a heaping handful of Epsom Salts, "to draw out the toxin," she said.

"Lockjaw!" I heard from every adult relative that came in and saw me sitting there. I'd seen The Wizard of Oz. I imagined the rust from the nail creeping up through my body, freezing me up just like the Tin Woodman, until I couldn't even utter the word, "oilcan" (good thing I didn't know it would also mean painful muscle spasms throughout the entire body, plus elevated temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, on-going for weeks). Mom assured me I'd be fine - I'd had my DT shots, before I started school just a couple of years earlier. I didn't know what a Deety was, I was just glad I had it.

Ten years later, when I was ready to go away to college, I first had to submit my immunization records. The university told me I needed a DT booster vaccination (which I now knew stood for Diphtheria/Tetanus) - the immunity lapses after 10 years. I've made sure to keep my immunity updated every decade since.

So why am I writing about this in a sustainable living blog? I now know rust doesn't cause Tetanus, but rusty cans and nails can often be found in areas harboring tetanus bacteria. The rough surface of a rusty object provides the perfect habitat for the tetanus bacteria to reside, and the sharp edges can make just the sort of break in your skin that provides the bacteria a route into your body. Tetanus bacteria spores are carried in the feces of animals, such as horses, cattle, chickens, dogs, cats, and guinea pigs. Anyone cleaning up after animals, making compost from manure, or using it in the garden, comes in contact with tetanus bacteria. Just getting your hands dirty while in your garden means you're probably carrying the spores on your skin. Tetanus bacteria thrives in hot, damp climates where the soil is rich in organic matter - exactly the type of environment organic gardeners strive to create.

Tetanus occurs when an open wound becomes contaminated with the bacteria. I know there are plenty of opportunities to cut, scratch, and puncture myself while working in my garden - splinters, insect bites, working around the cut ends of chicken wire, pruning roses and my particularly vicious blackberry brambles, to name only a few. Mom knew, even if you have a current tetanus vaccination, it's still necessary to immediately wash open wounds thoroughly with soap and water. I don't know if Granny's Epsom Salts treatment does anything, though. (Edit added later: upon confirmation by doctor's orders, from Jen in the comments, soaking in salt water really does draw toxins out of a wound - certainly not a substitute for a doctor's care in serious situations, but I thought it worth starting a "natural remedies" label on this blog).

Vaccines can prevent tetanus, but the immunity needs to be updated every 10 years. Since it can take up to two weeks for the antibodies to form, if you need a booster shot try to get it before your gardening season starts. Tetanus is fatal in 10 to 20% of reported cases (death occurs mainly in adults over 60, also the most likely to have let their immunity lapse), but even in less severe cases, with treatment, full recovery can take more than a year. Being sick and miserable, especially when it's easily preventable, makes no sense to me. I'd rather be safe than sorry, and stay healthy out there in my garden.

17 comments:

Jen said...

Actually, your Grandma had something there. When my cat bit me very deeply on my finger, I had to soak it in salt water (as prescribed by the doc) to basically do just what your Grandma said...pull the toxins out. I still had to get antibiotics anyway, but first the soap and water, then the salt water soak, and then (because I didn't do all these things right away and the wound was very deep and had had a chance to become really infected), the antibiotics.

Great post, as usual!

Holly said...

Just last week I cut my finger trying to pull a nail out of my garden shoes. As I was washing with soap and water I started counting back....2000, my last tetanus shot was in 2000. Even though I am now typing with a slightly sore arm, I'm happy I was able to get in quickly for my booster shot. Time flies, especially when we simple, green, frugal types are working in our gardens -- it's important to keep up to date on this one.

alazyknitter said...

I've always wondered how the tetanus shot works... tetanus is a bacteria... I thought you couldn't vaccinate against a bacteria?

Sadge said...

Hi Jen! Thanks for the feedback! I edited the original post to include your doctor's confirmation about soaking in salt water drawing out toxins.

Hi Lazy Knitter! In researching my post, I found that Tetanus is actually caused by a neurotoxin, produced by the bacteria, that attacks the body's nervous system and muscle fibers. It's infectious but not contagious - an infected person won't transmit it to another person. Unlike a viral infection, having it once does not confer immunity, which is why the vaccine needs to be periodically readministered. In none of my research did I find out exactly how the vaccine works - only that it does. Scientists are still working on other neurotoxin vaccines, such as for botulism and artificial agents such as nerve gas, so I guess we're lucky they did develop one for tetanus.
~Sadge

Julie said...

Thanks for the gentle nudge :-) I stepped on a rusty nail a couple of weeks ago and I worked out my last Tetanus shot was probably around 1993... and to my shame I still haven't gone in to get a booster. Ahem. I'm making appointment right now.

white_lilly said...

Thanks that was realy interesting I was not aware of the other places you mention that harbour the tetanus bacteria.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Great psot and a good reminder... Thanks.

Woody said...

We had an older dog that was infected with tetanus. It is treatable in canines. Sadly our vet recommended that she wouldn't fair well with the treatment and it was best to put her down. I just wanted to mention this because Shot at, hit by a truck, sliced by barb wire or stomped by hoof...I never would have thought that one of our dogs would get tetanus.

Sam said...

My great-grandfather died from tetanus - stood up in his workshop and a rusty nail stabbed him in the head, gave him tetanus.

You can also get tetanus from stings of ground living insects like yellow jackets - if you think about it, they give you a perfect puncture wound.

While my son hasn't had all his vaccines, tetanus was mandatory.

Diane said...

I didn't know why my spinning teacher insisted that all of her students be up-to-date on their tetanus shots until I saw the back end of a raw fleece. Hmmm. I wonder if that is the origin the Sleeping Beauty curse: she will prick her finger on a spindle and die (sentence commuted, of course).

carolyn said...

Thanks for the mention of salt water, good to know! As I'm counting years since my last tetanus shot...

Debra-Dawn said...

I stopped vaccinating my kids after mny son almost died from his first year immunization...

I could be wrong but i thought that the reason that lockjaw was dangerous years ago was because you couldnt open your mouth to eat so youd die of starvation... but these days that isnt the case...

i think that these days we too readily trust the dr's without doing our own research...

Sadge said...

Hi Debra-Dawn,
I'm sorry to hear about your son. Making a vaccination decision for your child is a very important decision and all parents should take it very seriously. There have been serious reactions to vaccines in very young children. I tried to keep my post information targeted to adults, and certainly don't claim to be a medical expert.

Here is one site I used in researching my post:
http://www.nvic.org/Vaccines-and-Diseases/Tetanus.aspx
It warns particularly of including the Pertussis (Whooping Cough) vaccine with Diphteria/Tetanus given to infants. It also says that the muscle spasms of a Tetanus infection can be strong enough to break bones.

We try to present informative topics and spark interesting discussions here. Thank you for commenting.
~Sadge

Dani said...

I had my DTP booster last year (which I get free through work as I work with infants YAY) and I was told by the attending nurse that the booster has been improved and now lasts longer. Of course I can't remember whether she said 15 or 20 years though. I figure I'll just stay in my 10 year cycle because I remember it easily after so many cycles of it.

Chris said...

I'm with Debra-Dawn. I won't go into my personal story, but just wanted to suggest if people have respect for how living systems work, they'll know problems inevitably arise when mankind tries to over-simplify control mechanisms.

I'm not anti immunisations for everyone. In our family though it has proven to be detrimental to our health.

Nature will (and has) circumvent mankind's understanding of natural systems, before we catch up and change our view.

So definitely research your own family medical history and take that into consideration before making any decision on preventative immunisations. As allergic reactions can create more sinister complications, than the not-yet-present disease being immunised for.

This isn't meant as a "scare" message, but more about being a personally "aware" message.

Johnebook said...

I lived in a farmhouse and had my dog catch tetanus. It's a pretty rare thing for a dog to do, but he'd been sick and under the care of a veterinarian. Unfortunately, I had to have the dog put down. So the bacteria is out there, just waiting. Keep your shots up to date.

Johnebook

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that sea salt seems to be the best for drawing out infections.Epsom salt soaks did little to help when my daughter had a bad cat bite on her thumb by the nail bed.Her thumb had swelled up and there was pus under her nail.I was on the way to get her antibiotics when our neighbor told us about using sea salt in water as hot as you can tolerate. She said it has microbes that eat the bacteria or something.We tried it and within minutes we could see the pus floating in the water. She soaked it 3 or 4 times a day for maybe three days. It healed well.