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Definition

Tetanus is an infection of the nervous system. It can be deadly when it is not treated. There are different types.

Causes

Tetanus is caused by bacteria that is found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin. Once inside the bacteria makes a toxin. This toxin causes tetanus.

Puncture Wound
CNS and PNS
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Risk Factors

Tetanus is most common in places that have rich, moist climates. Other things that may raise your risk are:

  • Not having an up to date tetanus vaccination
  • Injuries such as cuts or burns that have soil or unclean items in it
  • Childbirth in places that are not clean
  • Long-term wounds, such as a diabetic foot ulcers which have soil or unclean items
  • Injection drug use

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • A stiff, cramping jaw or neck
  • Muscle spasms, often in the belly
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Problems being able to swallow and breathe
  • Jerking movements
  • Staring off
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Fever

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health past. An exam will be done. Vaccination history may be needed. This can be enough to make the diagnosis.

Treatment

Care is needed right away. Some people may need help with breathing. Other treatments may include:

  • Medicine:
    • Tetanus immune globulin to stop the tetanus toxin
    • Antibiotics to treat infection
    • Medicine to control muscle spasms, such as benzodiazepines
    • Medicine to help the nervous system work better
  • Surgery—to open and clean any skin wounds.

A tetanus vaccine may be given to those who have not had a recent one.

Prevention

The best way to lower the chances of tetanus is to get the vaccination:

  • Children should get the DTaP vaccine series.
  • A single dose of Tdap vaccine is needed for children aged 11 years or older.
  • All adults should also receive one dose of Tdap. Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap with every pregnancy. This can help to prevent pertussis in the baby.
  • Adults should get a booster dose of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td) every 10 years.

Other things that can lower the risk are:

  • Cleaning all wounds right away
  • Seeking care for severe wounds

RESOURCES

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases  http://www.nfid.org 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases  http://www.niaid.nih.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society  http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca 

The College of Family Physicians of Canada  http://www.cfpc.ca 

References

Tetanus. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/condition/tetanus . Updated May 14, 2018. Accessed March 18, 2020.

Tetanus vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/tetanus/default.htm. Updated February 28, 2019. Accessed March 18, 2020.

Thwaites CL, Beeching NJ, et al. Maternal and neonatal tetanus. Lancet. 2015 Jan 24;385(9965):362-370.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 03/2020
  • Update Date: 09/09/2020