What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a very serious infection caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. The bacteria produce a poison, or toxin, that can invade the body and cause painful muscles contractions. This is why tetanus is also known as “lockjaw”.

Unlike other diseases, tetanus does not spread from person to person. Instead, the bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and manure and get into the body through breaks in the skin. This usually happens through cuts or puncture wounds caused by an object that is contaminated, such as a dirty nail or other object.

Tetanus is a vaccine-preventable illness.

What are the symptoms and complications of tetanus?

After a person is exposed to tetanus, it takes an average of 10 days to become sick. However, it can range from one day to several months, but most occur within the first two weeks.

The most common symptom of tetanus is tightening of the jaw muscles. This can lead to serious problems because it may make it difficult to open the mouth. It also creates difficulty swallowing and breathing.

Other symptoms of tetanus include:

  • Jaw cramping
  • Muscles spasms (sudden, involuntary muscle tightening) – often in the stomach
  • Painful muscle stiffness
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Fever and sweating
  • Changes in blood pressure and heart rate

Tetanus can cause some serious health complications, including:

  • Laryngospasm (tightening of the vocal cords)
  • Broken bones
  • Infections picked up during a hospital visit
  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a blood clot)
  • Pneumonia (lung infection)

Vaccination and good wound care are the two best ways to prevent tetanus.

Who should get the tetanus vaccine?

The CDC recommends people of all ages get the tetanus vaccine.

Today there are four vaccines that help protect against tetanus. All of these protect against other diseases as well, and different ones are used depending on a person’s age.

  • DT – protects against diphtheria and tetanus
  • DTaP – protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Td – protects against tetanus and diphtheria
  • Tdap – protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis

Babies and children younger than seven years old receive DTaP or DT vaccines a total of five times:

  1. 2 months of age
  2. 4 months of age
  3. 6 months of age
  4. 15 to 18 months of age
  5. 4 to 6 years of age

Preteens should receive the Tdap booster between 11 and 12 years of age. Adults should receive another dose of either Tdap or Td every 10 years.

Pregnant women should also get the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of any pregnancy.

Talk with your doctor about which tetanus vaccine is right for you.

Is the tetanus vaccine safe?

The tetanus vaccine is safe and effective. Thanks to vaccination efforts, there are only about 30 reported cases of tetanus in the United States each year. Nearly all reported cases are among people who were not up to date on their tetanus vaccinations.

Most people do not experience any serious side effects from the vaccine, although some may occur. Most side effects are mild and do not impact a person’s ability to continue daily activities.