Tetanus
(Lockjaw & Tetanus Vaccination)

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

Tetanus facts

  • Tetanus is frequently a fatal infectious disease.
  • Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria (Clostridium tetani).
  • The tetanus bacteria often enter the body through a puncture wound, which can be caused by nails, splinters, insect bites, burns, any skin break, and injection-drug sites.
  • All children and adults should be immunized against tetanus by receiving vaccinations.
  • A tetanus booster is needed every 10 years after primary immunization or after a puncture or other skin wound which could provide the tetanus bacteria an opportunity to enter the body.

What is tetanus?

Comment on this

Tetanus is an acute, often-fatal disease of the nervous system that is caused by nerve toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. This bacterium is found throughout the world in the soil and in animal and human intestines.

Where do tetanus bacteria grow in the body?

Contaminated wounds are the sites where tetanus bacteria multiply. Deep wounds or those with devitalized (dead) tissue are particularly prone to tetanus infection.

Puncture wounds, such as those caused by nails, splinters, or insect bites, are favorite locations of entry for the bacteria. The bacteria can also be introduced through burns, any break in the skin, and injection-drug sites. Tetanus can also be a hazard to both the mother and newborn child (by means of the uterus after delivery and through the umbilical cord stump).

The potent toxin that is produced when the tetanus bacteria multiply is the major cause of harm in this disease.

How does the tetanus toxin cause damage to the body?

The tetanus toxin affects the site of interaction between the nerve and the muscle that it stimulates. This region is called the neuromuscular junction. The tetanus toxin amplifies the chemical signal from the nerve to the muscle, which causes the muscles to tighten up in a continuous ("tetanic" or "tonic") contraction or spasm. This results in either localized or generalized muscle spasms. Tetanus toxin can affect neonates to cause muscle spasms, inability to nurse, and seizures. This typically occurs within the first two weeks after birth and can be associated with poor sanitation methods in caring for the umbilical cord stump of the neonate. Of note, because of tetanus vaccination programs, there have only be a few cases of neonatal tetanus reported in the U.S. since 1990, and in each of these cases, the mothers were incompletely immunized. Worldwide, however, neonatal tetanus is still, unfortunately, common.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/3/2014

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Tetanus - Describe Your Experience Question: What were the symptoms of your tetanus?
Tetanus - Treatment Question: What kinds of treatment, including medication, were used for tetanus in you or someone you know?
Tetanus - Vaccine Question: Are you up-to-date on your tetanus vaccine? When and why did you receive it last?
Tetanus - Experience Question: Did a relative or anyone you know ever become infected with tetanus? Please describe your experience.

Do You Need a Tetanus Shot?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

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 spasmsin 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.


STAY INFORMED

Get the Latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!