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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a sometimes fatal disease of the central nervous system. It's caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium. The bacterium usually enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus bacteria live in soil and manure. They can also be found in the human intestine and other places.

  • Tetanus occurs more often in warmer climates or during the warmer months.
  • Tetanus is very uncommon in the U.S. due to widespread immunization.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium. It’s not spread from person to person. It occurs in people who have had a skin or deep tissue wound or puncture. It’s also seen in the umbilical stump of infants in underdeveloped countries. This occurs in places where immunization to tetanus is not widespread and women may not know how to care for the stump after the baby is born. After being exposed to tetanus, it may take from 3 to 21 days to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take from 3 days to 2 weeks to develop.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The following are the most common symptoms of tetanus. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Stiffness of the jaw (also called lockjaw)
  • Stiffness of the abdominal and back muscles
  • Contraction of the facial muscles
  • Fast pulse
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Painful muscle spasms near the wound area (if these affect the throat or chest wall, breathing may be stopped)
  • Difficulty swallowing

The symptoms of tetanus may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on a complete history and physical exam.

How is tetanus treated?

Specific treatment for tetanus will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment for tetanus (or to reduce the risk of tetanus after an injury) may include:

  • Medications to control spasms
  • Thorough cleaning of the wound
  • A course of tetanus antitoxin injections
  • Use of a ventilator (breathing machine) if you have trouble breathing on your own 
  • Antibiotics
  • Other medications to control pain and other symptoms such as fast heartbeat

What are the complications of tetanus?

Complications of tetanus can include:

  • Vocal cord spasms
  • Broken bones due to severe muscle spasms
  • Breathing problems
  • Pneumonia
  • A clot in the pulmonary artery of one of the lungs

Can tetanus be prevented?

The CDC recommends that children receive 5 DTaP shots. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against 3 diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. Between 15 and 18 months of age, the fourth shot is given, and a fifth is given when a child enters school at 4 to 6 years of age. At regular checkups for 11- or 12-year-olds, a preteen should get a dose of Tdap. The Tdap booster contains tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine. If an adult did not get a Tdap as a preteen or teen, he or she should get a dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. Adults should get a Td booster every 10 years, but it can be given before the 10-year mark. Always consult your health care provider for advice.

When should I call my health care provider?

If you get a wound from an object that is contaminated with dirt, animal feces, or manure, you should see your health care provider for a tetanus booster shot if it has been more than 5 years since your previous vaccination or you can’t remember your last vaccination.

If you have any of the symptoms listed in the symptoms section, you should seek medical care immediately, as tetanus requires urgent attention.

Key points about tetanus

  • Tetanus is an acute, sometimes fatal, disease of the central nervous system, caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium.
  • The tetanus bacterium usually enters the body through an open wound.
  • Tetanus bacteria live in soil and manure. It can also be found in the human intestine and other places.
  • Symptoms of tetanus may include stiffness of the jaw, abdominal, and back muscles, fast pulse, fever, sweating, painful muscle spasms and difficulty swallowing.
  • The tetanus vaccine can reduce the risk of the disease after an injury.
  • Tetanus requires medical attention and treatment with medications and tetanus antitoxin injections.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 2/10/2014
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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