Tetanus (also known as lockjaw) is a serious bacterial disease caused by the toxin of Clostridium tetani. The toxin affects your nervous system, leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly of your jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus can interfere with your ability to breathe, and it can be fatal.

What are the symptoms of Tetanus?

After infection, it normally takes about a week for symptoms to develop, but onset can range from a few days to several weeks.

Tetanus usually begins with muscle spasms in the jaw that make it difficult to open the mouth or swallow. These spasms can be accompanied by pain and stiffness in the muscles of the neck, shoulders, abdomen, arms, and thighs. Complications of Tetanus infection can include permanent disability and death.

Newborns are at risk of Tetanus if their mothers have not been immunized. Because these babies have not acquired passive immunity from their mothers, they can be infected if their umbilical cords are cut with unsterilized instruments. Tetanus infections in infants can cause permanent brain damage.

How can I get Tetanus?

Any wound of any size that breaks the skin can result in a Tetanus infection. This includes puncture wounds from splinters, animal bites, body piercings, tattoos, burns, surgical incisions, crush injuries, and broken bones.

Your probability of being infected with Tetanus bacteria increases if you:

  • Have a penetrating injury from an object that has been contaminated with dirt, animal feces, or saliva.
  • Have not been immunized for Tetanus or your booster shots are not up to date.

Tetanus is not infectious and does not spread from person to person.

Where can I get Tetanus?

The c. tetani bacteria that cause Tetanus are present worldwide. Because of vaccination programs, Tetanus is rare in the industrialized world. Around a million cases occur worldwide each year in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. If you are travelling to these areas and are adequately vaccinated, you will not face any increased risks of infection.

You can get Tetanus anywhere if your vaccination and booster shots for Tetanus are not up to date. For example, if you require dental or medical care in unhygienic conditions, use injection drugs, or are injured by a contaminated object, you are at risk.

What vaccines are available for Tetanus?

Tetanus vaccine has been part of routine immunization in Canada since the 1940s. The Tetanus vaccine is usually combined with Diphtheria (the Td vaccine) or with Diphtheria and Pertussis (the Tdap vaccine). It is also combined with other vaccines such as Hepatitis B, Polio, or haemeophilus Influenza type B in vaccines given in early childhood

How many shots will I need?

If you received a Tetanus vaccine in your early childhood, you should have a booster every 10 years to maintain your immunity. If you have not been immunized your healthcare provider will advise you of the appropriate vaccination schedule for you.

Will I need a booster?

Adults should get a Tetanus and Diphtheria (Td) booster every ten years. You cannot become immune to Tetanus, so you will need to get boosters even if you have had Tetanus. If you have not had a Tdap vaccine, you should get a single dose of Tdap to replace a Td booster.

Women who are pregnant and due for a booster should get a Tdap vaccine late in their second trimester or anytime during their third trimester.

You should get a Tetanus booster if:

  • You have not had a booster in the last 10 years.
  • You are unsure of your vaccination status.
  • You have a deep wound and have not had a Tetanus booster in the past five years, especially if it is contaminated with dirt, saliva, or animal feces.
  • You have any wound that breaks the skin and have not had a booster in the past five years.

How can I prevent Tetanus?

You can ensure you are protected against Tetanus by:

  • Completing the childhood primary series with a Tetanus-containing vaccine.
  • Getting your first booster during adolescence.
  • Getting a subsequent booster every 10 years.

Additional shots of Tetanus immunoglobulin may be required if you have a wound or injury that could cause Tetanus.

What is the treatment for Tetanus?

If you have a skin wound, clean and dress it right away. This is especially important if you have a deep puncture wound that may be contaminated with feces, soil, or saliva. Cleaning your wound can help prevent the growth of Tetanus. However, first aid is not a substitute for immunization. If you haven’t had a Tetanus shot in the last five years, or your wound is deep, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

There is no cure for Tetanus. Tetanus infection often requires intensive, long-term treatment. It can take several months for new nerve tissue to grow after Tetanus toxin has bonded to nerve endings.

Treatment focuses on supportive care and medications to ease symptoms. Patients usually receive sedatives to control their muscle spasms. Because sedatives can inhibit breathing, the patient may need a ventilator. Tetanus patients may also need antibiotics to fight the Tetanus bacteria and an antitoxin such as Tetanus immune globulin to neutralize Tetanus toxin.

Death is more likely in people who haven’t been immunized and in older adults whose boosters are not up to date. In countries that do not have vaccination programs, infants are high risk of severe illness and death.