Few people can remember their very first tetanus vaccine shot, since it was most likely administered in a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine cocktail during the toddler years. Parents, however, were often told to observe their children after receiving the shot, since extended bouts of crying and some localized pain were known side effects. It's highly likely that the first tetanus vaccine shot you received as a child was just as painful as the booster shots you received as a teen or young adult.
The medical profession does not make a habit of describing certain routine inoculations and vaccines as more or less painful than others. This information, although helpful, might prove to be counterproductive when dealing with sensitive patients. The truth is that the tetanus vaccine is often singled out as a particularly painful shot to receive, and the residual pain can last for days or even weeks. Some people report feelings of numbness in the receiving arm within minutes of getting a tetanus vaccine booster shot. Others claim to feel a sensation like a hard marble at the injection site itself, accompanied by radiating pain throughout their arms, neck and back.
Some also complain of general fatigue and muscle weakness after receiving a tetanus vaccine. The usual course of treatment involves taking OTC painkillers such as Motrin® or ibuprofen until the pain subsides, generally within a few days or a week. More serious reactions to a tetanus vaccine booster shot could be hives, rashes or pronounced muscular weakness.
Why is a tetanus vaccine booster shot so painful? There are a few theories, but no single definitive answer. The nature of the tetanus bacteria itself may have something to do with the amount of pain you experience. Tetanus bacteria live in anaerobic environments, which means places with little to no oxygen. If you were scratched with a rusty nail on the surface of your skin, the chances of developing tetanus would be minimal. The tetanus bacteria would not grow in such an oxygen-rich environment. The danger of developing tetanus increase exponentially if you suffer a deep puncture wound. The tetanus bacteria would thrive in the deep tissues of your body, since they don't ordinarily receive much oxygen.
If you suffer a deep puncture wound, especially one involving dirty or rusty objects, some of the dormant tetanus bacteria might enter your system before the wound can be cleaned out and disinfected. A tetanus vaccine shot does not kill the bacteria directly, but rather strengthens your own body's antibodies against an invasion of tetanus bacteria. It is believed that the injection of tetanus toxoid, the most common form of tetanus vaccine, can create a significant number of antibodies to form, which in turn might contribute to the painful side effects which some people experience.
It used to be a common practice for nurses to warm up the tetanus vaccine by rolling it between their hands before administering the shot. Recent studies, however, indicate that the temperature of the tetanus vaccine had little to no effect on the level of pain or the duration of side effects experienced by patients. Some injections of medication do hurt more than others, perhaps because of their relative acidity or concentration.
There are some experts who are now questioning the need for tetanus vaccine booster shots at all. At one point in history, the standard medical recommendation was annual tetanus vaccine booster shots. This span of time between boosters has been increased over the years, and currently the recommendation is ten years between boosters. This gap may continue to increase, and many adults have abandoned the practice altogether, with minimal consequences to their health.
Even the practice of administering a tetanus vaccine shot following a deep puncture wound has come under some questioning. Tetanus is a very serious disease, with a high mortality rate, but some medical professionals suggest that a very thorough cleansing process reduces the chances of developing tetanus significantly.