What is Tetanus?

Tetanus, or lockjaw, is a serious bacterial infection caused by clostridium tetani. These common bacteria can be found in a variety of places, including the soil, household dust, and animal feces. When the spores enter deep into the body, they produce a toxin that causes a painful tightening of the muscles. The muscles of the neck and jaw can tighten, making if difficult to swallow and requiring medical attention.

A vaccine is the best way to prevent a tetanus infection. The tetanus vaccine is given to children as part of their regular immunizations and is recommended for adults every 10 years. If you believe you have tetanus and your vaccine is not up to date, it’s a medical emergency—seek treatment immediately.

Tetanus Symptoms

The bacteria that causes tetanus is most likely to enter the body through a deep cut or wound, like the puncture caused by stepping on a nail. From there, it takes anywhere from 8-21 days for tetanus symptoms to develop. Here’s a list of the most common symptoms:

  • Painful muscle tightening, especially of the neck and jaw
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sweating
  • Fever

Tetanus Diagnosis

There are no hospital lab tests that can confirm tetanus, so your doctor will make a tetanus diagnosis based on a physical exam, your symptoms—especially the presence of muscle spasms—and your immunization history.

Tetanus Causes

When clostridium tetani bacteria enter deep into the body they produce a powerful toxin called tetanospasmin. This toxin impairs the nerves that control your muscles, causing stiffness and spasms. The bacteria enter the body through a deep cut, wound, or burn. They release the toxin when it is deep enough in the body that oxygen no longer reaches it.


A tetanus shot can prevent tetanus, and staying up-to-date on this vaccination is very important. Children receive the vaccine as part of their regular immunizations, including the DTap, which is a series of 5 shots administered at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years.

A booster shot for tetanus is recommended for adolescents and adults. Called a Tdap, it should be administered between the ages of 11 to 12 and then every 10 years after that.

Treatment and Recovery

Tetanus is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Tetanus treatment may include:

  • Medical care in the hospital
  • Treatment with human tetanus immune globulin (TIG)
  • Intensive wound care
  • Medications to control muscle spasms
  • A tetanus shot

Complete recovery from tetanus may take several months. It requires new nerve endings to grow, replacing those that were damaged by the toxins.

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