What is tetanus?
Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria make a toxin, or poison, that causes severe muscle spasms. Tetanus can be very dangerous, but you can get a shot to prevent it. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because muscle spasms in your jaw make it hard to open your mouth. Tetanus also causes seizures and makes it hard for you to swallow or breathe.
In the United States, most people have had shots to prevent tetanus, so the disease is relatively rare. People who have never been immunized or haven't had a booster in the last 10 years are more likely to get tetanus. This includes people who recently moved to the U.S. from countries where tetanus shots are rare.
What causes it?
The bacteria that cause tetanus are called Clostridium tetani. They are usually found in dirt and soil, most often in areas with animal waste such as farms and ranches. These bacteria typically enter the body through a wound, cut, splinter, or burn.
The bacteria grow best when they are not around oxygen. The deeper and narrower the wound, the less oxygen there is around it, so tetanus is more likely. For example, the bacteria can thrive in a puncture wound from a dirty nail. The dirtier the wound, the higher the risk of getting tetanus. But tetanus can also grow in a clean wound.
Tetanus is not contagious, so you can't get it from a person who has it.
What are the symptoms?
Tetanus symptoms appear slowly and get worse over time. The time it takes for symptoms to appear after a cut or injury ranges from days to months. In most cases, symptoms of tetanus appear within 14 days.
Tetanus symptoms often begin with a headache and trouble opening your mouth (lockjaw). You also may have trouble swallowing and/or a stiff neck, back, or shoulders.
As the toxin spreads, it can be deadly. It can cause problems with your blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause severe and painful muscle spasms in your neck, arms, legs, and belly.
How is it diagnosed?
There is no lab test for tetanus. A doctor can usually diagnose tetanus after asking questions about your symptoms and past health and doing a physical exam. Because other problems can cause muscle spasms like tetanus, your doctor will do tests to make sure your symptoms are not caused by something else.
How is tetanus treated?
If you are infected with tetanus, you will need to stay in a hospital so you can get medicines and fluids to control muscle spasms and pain. You also may need treatment to help you breathe. Your doctor will fully clean any wound or cut to remove bacteria. Cleaning the affected area stops bacteria from making toxin. Treatment also includes:
- Antibiotics. These medicines kill bacteria.
- A tetanus vaccine.
- Tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG). This is a protein that helps your body's immune system find and destroy bacteria. TIG boosts your immunity while your body fights the infection.
- Medicines to decrease muscle spasms. You also may be treated in an intensive care unit (ICU) with medicines that paralyze your muscles for a while until your body begins to recover. In this case, you will need treatment to help with breathing and other body functions.
After you've had tetanus, you are not immune to the disease. You could get infected again. So keep getting routine tetanus shots after you get better.
How can you prevent it?
You can prevent tetanus by getting all of your recommended immunizations (shots). There are three different shots that protect you from tetanus.
- DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis). DTaP is given in a series of 5 shots starting at age 2 months and ending at ages 4 to 6 years.
- Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis). Tdap is the first booster shot for tetanus. It is recommended at age 11 or 12. It's also recommended for all teens and adults who never had the Tdap shot. People who are pregnant need a Tdap shot during each pregnancy.
- Td (tetanus and diphtheria). Td is given as a booster shot every 10 years.
If you never had tetanus shots as a child, or if you're not sure if you had them, you'll need to get 3 tetanus shots in about a 1-year time span. (Your doctor will tell you which shots you will need.) After that, 1 booster shot every 10 years will protect you.
You will need a tetanus shot as soon as possible if you have a dirty cut, wound, or burn and 5 or more years have passed since your last tetanus shot. The doctor will clean the wound and may give you antibiotics.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Christine Hahn MD - Epidemiology