Cases of tetanus – a serious bacterial infection – are rare in the United States, because of the tetanus vaccine. Everyone needs protection against tetanus. It is important to stay up to date on vaccines.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus affects the nervous system and causes involuntary muscle contractions. “Lockjaw” is another word for tetanus, because the toxins first affect the neck and jaw area, making it hard to swallow or open the mouth.

There is no cure for tetanus, and the disease poses a risk for anyone who is not up to date on their tetanus vaccination.

Tetanus causes

Tetanus can develop after a person has a cut, wound, or open-skin injury that can become infected. The bacteria that cause tetanus can be found in the soil, dust or feces.

Injuries with a higher likeliness of tetanus infection include:

  • Puncture wounds or deep wounds

  • Burns

  • Injuries involving dead tissue

People who have been vaccinated against tetanus should still seek treatment from a doctor.

Tetanus symptoms progress with time

The incubation period for tetanus is three to 21 days after exposure. This period can depend on the severity of the wound and vaccination history.

Infection systems can start as:

  • Lockjaw

  • Neck stiffness

  • Abdomen stiffness

  • Trouble swallowing

The symptoms can progress to:

  • Severe muscle spasms

  • Seizure-like activity

  • Severe nervous system disorders

Tetanus should be treated with immediate medical care. Infection can be deadly as the toxin spreads.

Contact your doctor and visit your local urgent care or emergency department if you believe you have been exposed to tetanus.

Tetanus screening and diagnosis

There are no tests to confirm tetanus. Doctors diagnose patients based on evaluations of the symptoms, immunization records, and exposure possibilities.

Seek immediate medical attention if you believe you or your child has been exposed to tetanus.

Tetanus treatments

Doctor will treat tetanus depending on the patient’s immunization records. Patients who are up to date on their vaccinations will receive a booster to prevent infection.

Patients who are not up to date on their vaccinations will receive a tetanus shot and tetanus immune globulin to fight the bacteria and boost immunity.

Tetanus can be prevented with vaccinations and proper wound care. Vaccinations are given in standard childhood immunizations.

Adults can get vaccinated or receive a booster if it has been 10 years since their last tetanus shot.  If you get a cut or injury and you have not had a tetanus vaccine in the past five years, you should seek medical care to get the vaccine.

These vaccinations include:

  • DTap (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis): Vaccination series for children under six years of age.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis): The first booster shot those who have received DTap, or first vaccination for those who haven’t. Pregnant women will receive Tdap as well.
  • Td (tetanus and diphtheria): Booster shot 10 years after Tdap.

Talk with your provider about immunizations if you are pregnant.

Ask your doctor whether you or your family members are due for a booster shot.