Do You Need a Tetanus Shot?

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

Tetanus, sometimes called lockjaw, is a rare disease caused by bacteria known as Clostridium tetani. A toxin produced by the bacteria affects the function of the nerves and leads to severe muscle spasms in the abdomen, neck, stomach, and extremities. Tetanus can either be localized to one part of the body or generalized, with muscle spasms throughout the body. The disease has been called lockjaw since the muscle spasms in the face and neck can lead to the inability to open the mouth, and this is one of the most common symptoms of tetanus. Tetanus is a serious illness that is fatal in up to 30% of cases.

The bacteria that cause tetanus can be found in soil, manure, or dust. They infect humans by entering the body through cuts or puncture wounds, particularly when the wound area is dirty. Animal bites, burns, and non-sterile injection of drugs can also lead to infection with Clostridium tetani. The first symptoms of tetanus can appear any time from three days to weeks after infection, but the average time until symptom onset is eight days. Tetanus is not contagious, so you cannot acquire the disease from someone who has it.

The tetanus vaccine is a toxoid, meaning that it protects against the toxin produced by the bacteria. Developed in the 1920s, tetanus vaccination became routinely used as a part of childhood immunizations in the U.S. after World War II, and it is considered to be essentially 100% effective in preventing tetanus. Tetanus immunization is almost always administered to children in the form of the DTaP vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and pertussis. Tetanus toxoid can also be given in combination with diphtheria vaccine alone in both adult (Td) and pediatric (DT) formulations.