Tetanus is a serious disease of the nervous system caused by a toxin-producing bacterium. The disease causes muscle contractions, particularly of your jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus is commonly known as lockjaw.
Severe complications of tetanus can be life-threatening. There's no cure for tetanus. Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and complications until the effects of the tetanus toxin resolve.
Because of the widespread use of vaccines, cases of tetanus are rare in the United States and other parts of the developed world. The disease remains a threat to people who aren't up to date on their vaccinations. It's more common in developing countries.
The average time from infection to appearance of signs and symptoms (incubation period) is 10 days. The incubation period can range from 3 to 21 days.
The most common type of tetanus is called generalized tetanus. Signs and symptoms begin gradually and then progressively worsen over two weeks. They usually start at the jaw and progress downward on the body.
Signs and symptoms of generalized tetanus include:
- Painful muscle spasms and stiff, immovable muscles (muscle rigidity) in your jaw
- Tension of muscles around your lips, sometimes producing a persistent grin
- Painful spasms and rigidity in your neck muscles
- Difficulty swallowing
- Rigid abdominal muscles
Progression of tetanus results in repeated painful, seizure-like spasms that last for several minutes (generalized spasms). Usually, the neck and back arch, the legs become rigid, the arms are drawn up to the body, and the fists are clenched. Muscle rigidity in the neck and abdomen may cause breathing difficulties.
These severe spasms may be triggered by minor events that stimulate the senses — a loud sound, a physical touch, a draft or light.
As the disease progresses, other signs and symptoms may include:
- High blood pressure
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Extreme sweating
This uncommon form of tetanus results in muscles spasms near the site of a wound. While it's usually a less severe form of disease, it can progress to generalized tetanus.
This rare form of tetanus results from a head wound. It results in weakened muscles in the face and spasms of the jaw muscles. It also can progress to generalized tetanus.
When to see a doctor
Tetanus is a life-threatening disease. If you have signs or symptoms of tetanus, seek emergency care.
If you have a simple, clean wound — and you've had a tetanus shot within 10 years — you can care for your wound at home.
Seek medical care in the following cases:
- You've not had a tetanus shot within 10 years.
- You are unsure of when you last had a tetanus shot.
- You have a puncture wound, a foreign object in your wound, an animal bite or a deep cut.
- Your wound is contaminated with dirt, soil, feces, rust or saliva — or you have any doubt about whether you've cleaned a wound sufficiently after such exposure. Contaminated wounds require a vaccination booster if it's been five or more years since your last tetanus shot.
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The bacterium that causes tetanus is called Clostridium tetani. The bacterium can survive in a dormant state in soil and animal feces. It's essentially shut down until it discovers a place to thrive.
When the dormant bacteria enter a wound — a condition good for growth — the cells are "awakened." As they are growing and dividing, they release a toxin called tetanospasmin. The toxin impairs the nerves in the body that control muscles.
The greatest risk factor for tetanus infection is not being vaccinated or not keeping up with the 10-year booster shots.
Other factors that increase the risk of tetanus infection are:
- Cuts or wounds exposed to soil or manure
- A foreign body in a wound, such as a nail or splinter
- A history of immune-suppressing medical conditions
- Infected skin lesions in people living with diabetes
- An infected umbilical cord when a mother isn't fully vaccinated
- Shared and unsanitary needles for illegal drug use
Complications of tetanus infection may include:
- Breathing problems. Life-threatening breathing problems can occur from tightening of the vocal cords and muscle rigidity in the neck and abdomen, especially during a generalized spasm.
- Blockage of a lung artery (pulmonary embolism). A blood clot that has traveled from elsewhere in your body can block the main artery of the lung or one of its branches.
- Pneumonia. A lung infection caused by accidentally inhaling something into the lungs (aspiration pneumonia) may be a complication of generalized spasms.
- Broken bones. Generalized spasms may cause fractures of the spine or other bones.
- Death. Death from tetanus is often caused by a blocked airway during spasms or damage to the nerves that regulate breathing, heart rate or other organ functions.
You can prevent tetanus by being vaccinated.
Vaccination for children
The tetanus vaccine is given to children as part of the diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP). Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection of the nose and throat. Acellular pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory infection.
Children who do not tolerate the pertussis vaccine may receive the alternative vaccine called DT.
The DTaP is a series of five shots typically given in the arm or thigh to children at ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years
Vaccination for children ages 7 to 18
A booster shot is recommended for children at age 11 or 12. This booster is called the Tdap vaccine. If your child didn't get a booster shot as this age, talk to your doctor about appropriate options.
Vaccination for adults age 19 and older
A booster shot is recommended for adults once every 10 years. This may be one of two vaccines, Tdap or Td. If you weren't vaccinated against tetanus as a child or are unsure about your vaccination status, see your doctor about getting the Tdap vaccine.
Vaccination during pregnancy
A booster is recommended during the third trimester of a pregnancy, regardless of the mother's vaccination schedule.
- Ask your doctor to review your vaccination status regularly.
- Check whether you are current on your vaccination schedule if you are planning international travel.