(also called lockjaw or trismus) is a serious, often fatal disease
that affects the
and nerves. Although tetanus can be serious, the good news is that
it's rare in the United States.
What Is Tetanus?
Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria called
that usually live in soil. The bacteria produce a toxin (a chemical
or poison that harms the body). This toxin attaches to nerves
around a wound area and is carried inside the nerves to the brain
or spinal cord. There it interferes with the normal activity of
nerves, especially the motor nerves that send direct messages to
our muscles. Tetanus is not contagious - you can't catch it
from someone who has it.
can occur when a baby is delivered in unsanitary conditions,
especially if the cut umbilical cord is contaminated after the baby
is born. Before
(vaccines that help the body fight certain illnesses) were
available, neonatal tetanus was a common cause of newborn death
because the disease is almost always fatal in infants. Because of
improved surgical procedures and techniques for cutting the
umbilical cord, however, newborn tetanus is now rare in developed
Starting at 2 months of age, all babies in the United States are
routinely vaccinated against tetanus. But in developing countries
where there's no effective prevention and immunization program
against tetanus, the disease is much more common than it is in the
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Tetanus often begins with muscle spasms in the jaw and face,
together with difficulty swallowing and stiffness or pain in
muscles in the neck, shoulder, or back. The muscle spasms can be
severe and can quickly spread to muscles of the abdomen, upper
arms, and thighs.
The symptoms of tetanus usually appear anywhere from 3 to 14
days after the person has become infected.
Can I Prevent Tetanus?
The best way to prevent tetanus is to make sure that your
immunizations against the disease are updated. Before you started
school, by about age 5, you should have received a full series of
tetanus immunizations (shots). You should also get a tetanus
booster about every 10 years (which means getting another tetanus
shot around the time you enter your teens).
If you're not sure whether you've been properly
immunized against tetanus, ask a parent or call your doctor. If
it's been more than 10 years since you had a tetanus booster,
schedule an office visit with your doctor as soon as possible to
bring your immunizations up to date.
Most cases of tetanus in the United States happen when people
who haven't been properly immunized get a cut or puncture
wound. In rare cases the injury is so small that a person
doesn't see a doctor for treatment, and the tetanus bacteria
grow unobserved. (Animal bites, burns, frostbite, and injecting
drugs can also sometimes lead to someone developing tetanus.)
If you get a deep or dirty cut or a puncture wound and it's
been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot, see a doctor
so you can get a tetanus booster to ensure that you're fully
You can also help prevent tetanus by protecting the bottoms of
your feet against deep or dirty wounds (such as being punctured by
a nail) by wearing thick-soled shoes or sandals instead of going
barefoot, especially when outdoors.
If you do get a wound, keep it clean. Apply an over-the-counter
antibacterial or antiseptic treatment that can help prevent
bacteria from growing, change the dressing once a day, and ask your
parent or doctor whether you need a tetanus shot. Any deep puncture
wound, especially one on the bottom of a foot, must be seen by a
doctor because it is more likely to become seriously infected
without proper treatment.
Neonatal tetanus can be prevented by making sure that all
pregnant women have proper immunization before delivery and by
delivering their babies in sanitary conditions.
How Is Tetanus Treated?
In the rare cases where a person does develop tetanus, recovery
is possible. When the infection is diagnosed and treated early, the
recovery period usually takes at least 4 to 6 weeks.
People who are infected with tetanus and develop the disease are
treated in a hospital, usually in an intensive care unit (ICU).
They receive large doses of antibiotics to kill the tetanus
bacteria and tetanus antitoxin (a medicine that neutralizes the
toxin produced by the bacteria). Other medicines may be needed to
control muscle spasms.
No one likes shots, but getting tetanus - and the treatment for
it - is more painful and long lasting than a shot. So make sure
that your tetanus immunization status is up to date, and if you get
a bad cut, see your doctor in case you need a booster.
Joel Klein, MD
Date reviewed: April 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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