Tetanus (Lockjaw)

What is tetanus?

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a bacterial illness that causes very painful muscle spasms. Tetanus is rare in the United States due to widespread vaccine use.

Who gets tetanus?

In the United States, tetanus occurs most often in older people. Also at risk for tetanus are farm workers and heroin users. Almost all tetanus cases occur in people who have not been adequately vaccinated against tetanus.

How is tetanus spread?

Tetanus occurs when a wound gets contaminated with a bacteria called Clostridium tetani. Tetanus is not spread from one person to another.

Where is the tetanus bacteria found?

The tetanus bacteria occurs throughout the environment. It is commonly found in soil contaminated with manure.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

Often the first sign of tetanus is a stiff jaw so that a person cannot open their mouth. This is followed by a stiff neck, difficulty swallowing and rigid abdominal muscles. Painful muscle spasms last for several minutes and can involve muscles throughout the body. These spasms can continue for 3 to 4 weeks. Other symptoms include fever, sweating, and a rapid heart rate.

How soon after infection do symptoms occur?

Symptoms usually appear around the 8th day after infection, but they can appear as early as 3 days and as late as months after infection.

Does past infection make a person immune?

No. Infection does not guarantee immunity. People who recover from tetanus should still be vaccinated against this disease.

What is the treatment for tetanus?

Tetanus immune globulin, antitoxin and antibiotics may be used to treat patients who have tetanus. The wound area should be cleaned, and dead tissue removed.

What are the complications associated with tetanus?

Complications can include spasms of the vocal cords, spasms of the muscles used for breathing, broken bones that can occur after severe muscle spasms, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, coma, pneumonia and death.

Is there a vaccine for tetanus?

An effective vaccine called tetanus toxoid has been available for many years. It is contained in the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis), DT (diphtheria, tetanus), DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis), and Td (tetanus and diphtheria) vaccines. A tetanus booster shot is recommended every ten years after the completion of a three-dose series.

What can be done to prevent the spread of tetanus?

The single most important preventive measure is maintaining the highest possible vaccination levels in the community. If a patient has not had a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years, they should be given the vaccine immediately after their injury. If the wound is deep or very dirty, tetanus vaccine should be given if the patient has not had a tetanus shot in the last 5 years. Tetanus immune globulin should also be given if the patient has not received at least 3 doses of tetanus vaccine before their injury.

For more information on where your child can be vaccinated, call 311.