Tetanus, also known as “lockjaw,” is a serious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection that causes muscle spasms in the jaw and throughout the body. Tetanus can lead to serious health problems, including the inability to open the mouth, tightening of vocal cords, trouble swallowing, and difficulty breathing.
What Causes Tetanus?
Tetanus is caused by spores from the Clostridium tetani bacterium that can be found in soil and feces. Tetanus spores can enter your body if you have a break in your skin. Tetanus is often associated with injuries from rusty nails, but it can also be caused by puncture wounds, scrapes, cuts, dog bites, burns, dental infections, body piercings, insect stings, and IV drug use. People with occupations or hobbies with frequent exposure to dust, dirt, and manure are at higher risk for contracting tetanus if they are not up to date with their tetanus vaccination.
How is Tetanus Treated?
Tetanus is a vaccine-preventable disease. Because of vaccination efforts in the United States, tetanus is uncommon, with approximately only 30 reported cases annually in the U.S. Of those who contracted tetanus, most were either not immunized or were not current on their booster shots.
There are no hospital lab tests that can confirm tetanus. A diagnosis of tetanus infection is made by healthcare providers through immunization history, history of recent events, and signs and symptoms, including jaw cramping, muscle spasms (often in the stomach), seizures, and painful muscle stiffness. A person with tetanus requires emergency medical care in a hospital, where they will be treated with medications to ease symptoms.
Tetanus Vaccine Recommendations
The CDC recommends people of all ages need to stay current with the tetanus vaccine. Immunization with tetanus-toxoid-containing vaccines (TTCV) protect against tetanus. Tetanus vaccines are usually delivered in combination with vaccines for other diseases such as diphtheria and pertussis (“whooping cough”). Health authorities recommend that everyone be given six doses of TTCV from childhood to adolescence. Adults who have never received the immunization should get one dose of TTCV, which can be given at any time, followed by a booster shot every 10 years.
Additionally, during the third trimester of each pregnancy, women should be immunized with TTCV to protect against maternal tetanus (tetanus during pregnancy or within six weeks of the end of pregnancy) and neonatal tetanus (tetanus within 28 days after a baby’s birth). The CDC provides a parent-friendly vaccination schedule that details when common vaccines are needed and can be viewed here.
Are Tetanus Vaccines Safe?
Yes, tetanus vaccines are considered safe; however, all immunizations have potential side effects. Most individuals who receive the vaccine only experience mild (if any) symptoms—including pain or tenderness at the injection site, fussiness, fever, fatigue. More serious, but unlikely complications can include high fever, seizures, and severe allergic reaction. Review the vaccine information sheets for each tetanus vaccine, here.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “About Tetanus,” February 28, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Whooping Cough Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know,” January 22, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis) VIS,” April 1, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Tetanus Vaccination,” January 22, 2020.
Harvard Health Publishing, “Tetanus,” December 2018.
World Health Organization, “Tetanus,” May 9, 2018.