What is tetanus?
Tetanus, commonly called lockjaw, is a bacterial disease that affects the nervous system. It is contracted through a cut or wound that becomes contaminated with tetanus bacteria.
The bacteria can get into the body through broken skin, usually through injuries from contaminated objects. Certain breaks in the skin that are more likely to get infected with tetanus bacteria. These include:
- Wounds contaminated with dirt, poop (feces), or spit (saliva)
- Wounds caused by an object puncturing the skin, like a nail or needle (puncture wounds)
- Crush injuries
- Injuries with dead tissue
Tetanus symptoms include:
- Jaw cramping
- Sudden, involuntary muscle tightening – often in the stomach (muscle spasms)
- Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
- Trouble swallowing
- Jerking or staring (seizures)
- Fever and sweating
- High blood pressure and fast heart rate
Tetanus complications include:
- Uncontrolled/involuntary muscular contraction of the vocal cords (laryngospasm)
- Break in the bone (fracture)
- Hospital-acquired infections
- Blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a blood clot that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream (pulmonary embolism)
- Pneumonia, a lung infection, that develops by breathing in foreign materials (aspiration pneumonia)
- Breathing difficulty, possibly leading to death (10-20% of cases are fatal)
Diagnosis and Treatment
Doctors can diagnose tetanus by examining the patient and looking for certain signs and symptoms. There are no hospital lab tests that can confirm tetanus.
Tetanus is a medical emergency requiring:
- Immediate treatment with human tetanus immune globulin (TIG) (or equine antitoxin)
- Tetanus vaccine
- Drugs to control muscle spasms
- Aggressive wound care
Depending on how severe the infection is, a machine to help you breathe may be required. A tetanus vaccine should be given along with treatment.
Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus. Due to widespread immunization, tetanus is a rare disease in the U.S. Most people receive their first dose as children in the form of a combined vaccine called DTaP (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis).
Everyone needs protection from tetanus. If you have not had a booster shot in 10 years or more, you should receive a tetanus shot. If you never had the initial childhood tetanus vaccines, you should receive a series of three tetanus shots.
Td vaccine can protect adolescents and adults from tetanus and diphtheria. Td is usually given as a booster dose every 10 years but it can also be given earlier after a severe and dirty wound or burn. Another vaccine, called Tdap, which protects against pertussis in addition to tetanus and diphtheria, is sometimes recommended instead of Td vaccine. Your doctor or the person giving you the vaccine can give you more information. Td may safely be given at the same time as other vaccines.
Some people should not get this vaccine
- A person who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction after a previous dose of any tetanus or diphtheria containing vaccine, OR has a severe allergy to any part of this vaccine, should not get Td vaccine. Tell the person giving the vaccine about any severe allergies.
- Talk to your doctor if you:
- have seizures or another nervous system problem,
- had severe pain or swelling after any vaccine containing diphtheria or tetanus,
- ever had a condition called Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS),
- aren't feeling well on the day the shot is scheduled.