Tetanus (also known as lockjaw) is an infection marked by prolonged muscle spasms. The infection creates a toxin that affects the nervous system. It can be fatal if left untreated.
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Tetanus is caused by specific bacteria that is found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin. Once inside the body, the bacteria create a toxin. This toxin causes
Factors that may increase your chance of tetanus include: Lack of tetanus vaccination, regular booster shots, or not updating tetanus vaccination in timely mannerIV drug useSkin sores or woundsBurnsExposure of open wounds to soil or animal feces
Tetanus may cause: HeadacheStiff jaw muscles or neck musclesDrooling or trouble swallowingMuscle spasticity or rigiditySweatingFeverIrritabilityPain or tingling at a wound siteSeizuresDifficulty breathingHeart 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 infectionOpening and cleaning the wound—entire wounded area may need to be
surgically removedAntibiotics to fight the bacteriaTetanus immune globulin—antibodies against tetanus that help neutralize the tetanus toxin
A tetanus shot—if your
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
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
series. This protects against
, tetanus, and
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.
ACOG Committee Opinion No. 566: Update on immunization and pregnancy: Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccination. Obstet Gynecol. 2013;121(6):1411-1414. Reaffirmed 2015.
Strikas RA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), ACIP Child/Adolescent Immunization Work Group. Advisory committee on immunization practices recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0 through 18 years—United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64(4):93-94.
Tetanus (lockjaw) vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
Updated February 11, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016.
1/24/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.dynamed.com: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis (tdap) vaccine from the advisory committee on immunization practices, 2010.
MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep.
11/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.dynamed.com: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap) in pregnant women and persons who have or anticipate having close contact with an infant aged <12 months—Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011.
MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep.
4/1/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.dynamed.com: Bridges CB, Coyne-Beasley T, et al. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended immunization schedule for adults aged 19 years or older—United States, 2014.
MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014. 63(7):110-112.
Last reviewed September 2016 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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