Health Library

Tetanus

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is an acute, sometimes fatal, disease of the central nervous system, caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium, which usually enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus bacteria live in soil and manure, but also can 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. From 2001 to 2008 in the U.S., 233 cases of tetanus were reported, with an average of 29 cases every year.

How is tetanus transmitted?

Tetanus is not a contagious illness. It occurs in individuals who have had a skin or deep tissue wound or puncture. It is 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 properly care for the stump after the baby is born. After being exposed to tetanus, it may take from three to 21 days to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take from three days to two weeks to develop.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The following are the most common symptoms of tetanus. However, each individual 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 larynx or chest wall, they may cause asphyxiation)

  • Difficulty swallowing

The symptoms of tetanus may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Symptoms usually confirm the diagnosis of tetanus.

Treatment for tetanus

Specific treatment for tetanus will be determined by your doctor 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 

Prevention of tetanus

The CDC recommends that children receive five DTaP shots. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against three 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 doctor for advice.

  • Bookmark
  • Print

    Find a Doctor

Click the button above or call
1 877 NYP WELL


eNewsletters
Top of page