Tetanus (also called lockjaw) is a serious disease
that affects the muscles
The good news is that it's rare in the United States because all babies are vaccinated
against it. The disease is much more common in developing countries than it is in
the United States.
What Causes Tetanus?
Tetanus is caused by a type of
called Clostridium tetani that usually live in soil. The bacteria
make a toxin (a chemical or poison that harms the body). This toxin attaches to nerves
around a wound area and travels 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 muscles.
In the United States, most cases of tetanus follow a contaminated cut or deep puncture
injury, such as a wound
caused by stepping on a nail. Sometimes the injury is so small the person never even
sees a doctor.
Tetanus is most common in:
injuries that involve dead skin, such as burns, frostbite, gangrene, or crush
wounds contaminated with soil, saliva (spit), or feces, especially if not cleaned
Tetanus often begins with muscle spasms in the jaw (called trismus).
Someone also can have trouble swallowing and stiffness or pain in the muscles of the
neck, shoulders, or back. The spasms can spread to the muscles of the belly, upper
arms, and thighs. The symptoms can happen days to months after exposure to the bacteria.
How Is Tetanus Treated?
Someone who has tetanus will be treated in a hospital, usually in the intensive
care unit (ICU). There, they usually get
to kill bacteria and tetanus immune globulin (TIG) to neutralize the toxin
already released. They'll also get medicines to control muscle spasms and may need
treatment to support vital body functions.
Can Tetanus Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent tetanus is to make sure that your immunizations against
it are up-to-date. You should have had:
a series of four doses of DTaP vaccine before 2 years of age
another dose at 4–6 years of age
a booster (Tdap) at 11–12 years of age, or later if it was missed
Then, you should have a tetanus and diphtheria (Td) booster every 10 years through
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). Wear 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.
Change the dressing once a day.
Ask your parent or doctor whether you need a tetanus shot.
See your doctor for any deep puncture wounds, especially on the bottom of a foot.
These are more likely to become infected without proper treatment.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
If you're not sure whether you've had all your tetanus vaccinations, ask a parent
or call your doctor. If it's been more than 10 years since you had a Td booster, see
your doctor as soon as possible to bring your immunizations up to date.
If you get a deep cut or puncture wound and it's been more than 5 years since your
last tetanus shot, see the doctor because you might need a tetanus booster to make
sure that you're fully immunized.
No one likes shots,
but getting tetanus 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.