Skip to main content

Tetanus (Lockjaw)

Tetanus, commonly called lockjaw, is a bacterial disease that affects the nervous system. It is contracted through cuts or wounds that become contaminated with tetanus bacteria. The bacteria can get in through deep puncture wounds or cuts like those made by nails or knives, but even a scratch can provide an entryway. Tetanus bacteria are present worldwide and are commonly found in soil and most surfaces. The infection causes severe muscle spasms, leading to “locking” of the jaw, making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. In severe cases, tetanus infections can lead to death by suffocation.

Tetanus is a vaccine-preventable disease that is not transmitted from person to person.

Symptoms

Common initial symptoms of tetanus are a headache and muscular stiffness in the jaw (lockjaw) followed by stiffness of the neck, difficulty swallowing, hardening of abdominal muscles, spasms, sweating, and fever. Symptoms usually begin around eight days following infection, but onset may range from three days to three weeks.

Prevention

Vaccination is the best way to prevent tetanus. Due to widespread immunization, tetanus is a rare disease in the US. Most people receive their first dose as children in the form of a combined vaccine called DTaP (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis). Health officials now recommend that adults and adolescents receive a Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis) or Td (tetanus-diphtheria) booster vaccine every 10 years.

Fact: Tetanus can be prevented with a safe and effective vaccine.

Fact: People with tetanus may have to spend several weeks in the hospital under intensive care.

Fact: Tetanus is not transmitted from one person to another.

Fact: Recovery from tetanus illness may not result in lifelong immunity. Another infection could occur unless immunization is provided soon after the person’s condition has stabilized.


Additional Resources