Tetanus is caused by a bacterial infection. A toxin from the infection affects the nervous system. It can lead to severe muscle spasms. Such spasms lead to lockjaw. This spasm makes it impossible to open or close the mouth. Tetanus can be fatal.
Tetanus bacteria are found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin.
When it is in your body, the bacteria create a toxin. This toxin causes tetanus.
Factors that increase your risk of tetanus include:
- Lack of tetanus vaccination or regular booster shots—or not updating tetanus vaccination in timely manner
- IV drug use
- Skin sores or wounds
- Exposure of open wounds to soil or animal feces
Symptoms of tetanus may include:
- Stiff jaw muscles or neck muscles
- Drooling or trouble swallowing
- Muscle spasticity or rigidity
- Pain or tingling at a wound site
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart beat that is too fast or too slow
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is mainly based on the medical history.
Your doctor may test the wound. A culture will grow the bacteria causing the infection. Culture results are not always accurate for tetanus.
Treatment may include:
- Hospitalization—to manage complications of the infection
- Opening and cleaning the wound—entire wounded area may need to be surgically removed
- Tetanus immune globulin—antibodies against tetanus that help neutralize the tetanus toxin
- A tetanus shot—if your tetanus vaccine is not up to date
- Medication to treat symptoms—may include antiseizure medication or muscle relaxants
Tetanus can cause severe problems with breathing or swallowing. A breathing tube may be inserted in the throat. This will help keep the airway open until you heal. A surgical procedure called a tracheotomy may be done. This will provide an open airway if your upper airway cannot be accessed.
The best means of prevention is immunization. The immunization schedule for tetanus is as follows:
- All children, with few exceptions should receive the, DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria , tetanus, and pertussis.
- A single dose of Tdap vaccine is recommended for children aged 11 years or older, even if they did not receive the DTaP.
- Adults should receive a booster dose of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td) every 10 years. They may also receive this vaccine after an exposure to tetanus. It is not harmful to receive a tetanus vaccination earlier than 10 years.
If you or your child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to the doctor. There are catch-up schedules available.
In addition to the vaccine, you can prevent tetanus by taking proper care of wounds:
- Promptly clean all wounds.
- See your doctor for medical care of wounds.
- Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
- Review Date: 05/2014 -
- Update Date: 00/60/2014 -