Healthy gardening

Before digging in your garden, roll up your sleeves – for your tetanus booster.

Gardening is meant to be soothing – not life-threatening.

But what many gardeners may not know is that tetanus bacteria occurs naturally in soil, compost or packaged potting mixtures. And if you haven’t had a tetanus booster in the past 10 years, you could be at risk.

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a potentially fatal disease that paralyzes the muscles and central nervous system. The bacteria, which is common in soil and animal feces, usually enters the body through an open cut or wound.

Because gardeners use sharp tools and handle plants with sharp points, they are particularly at risk for tetanus infections. In 2001, almost 40 per cent of cases of the disease were contracted while gardening or doing yard work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

And more than 50 per cent of adults older than 20 don’t have protective levels of antibodies against tetanus, health officials say.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms like stiffness of the jaw and severe muscle spasms usually begin about eight days after infection but can take longer to appear. Unlike some diseases, tetanus doesn’t spread from person to person, but is contracted through cuts, punctures and scrapes acquired while engaged in some outdoor activities.

Experts agree the best prevention against tetanus is vaccination, since infections in fully immunized people are exceptionally rare. Thanks to immunization programs, tetanus is less a threat than it was in the early part of the 20th century – but many people allow their immunizations to lapse. In fact, many don’t remember when they had their last tetanus booster.

“While cases of tetanus in Canada are rare, it is important that as adults we keep our immunization records up-to-date by being vaccinated against tetanus and other serious diseases,” says Dr. Ian Gemmill, Co-Chair of the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness & Promotion.

Tips to stay safe in the garden
Get a tetanus shot if you haven’t had one for more than 10 years. If you are injured while gardening, be sure to thoroughly clean wounds. If an infection does take hold, antibiotics and a tetanus booster will usually clear it up.

Wear sturdy gloves and protective clothing and footwear. Properly attiring yourself for the garden will help to prevent against any cuts or scrapes.

Store equipment safely. Even when laying tools down outside, make sure blades on shovels, hoes, and gravel rakes are facing down. This will help to prevent you or someone else from stepping on them.
Wear a hat and apply sunblock frequently. Protect yourself from the harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer.

Protect yourself from harmful toxins. Wear a particle mask when mixing soil or adding perlite or other chemicals to your soil.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of liquids – like other forms of exercise, gardening takes lots of energy. Take frequent breaks in a shaded and cool area, or stop gardening in the hottest part of the day.