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Tetanus is a neurological disease caused by a toxin-producing bacteria commonly found in the environment that does not spread person to person. The most common form of tetanus is generalized tetanus. Initial muscles impacted by generalized tetanus are often in the jaw and neck (leading to the common name for the disease, “lockjaw”). Tetanus is uncommon in the U.S. with an average of 30 reported cases each year. Most cases are reported among people who never receive the recommended tetanus vaccines. In the U.S., death results in approximately 10–20% of people diagnosed with tetanus. Vaccines are available to prevent the onset of tetanus among children, teens, and adults.
Tetanus is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, which produce spores that develop into bacteria when they enter the body. These spores can be found in the environment, such as in dust, manure, soil, and feces. The time from exposure to illness is usually between 3 and 21 days (average of 10 days) but may range from one day to several months. Common transmission occurs through broken skin by contaminated objects, such as nails or needles. Severe burns, crush injuries, and injuries involving dead tissue are other common ways for the bacterium to enter the body. The best way to prevent tetanus is proper wound care and vaccination.
To learn more about tetanus transmission, please visit CDC.gov/tetanus/about/causes-transmission
- jaw cramping
- Sudden, involuntary muscle spasms, often in the stomach
- Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
- Trouble swallowing
- Jerking movements or seizures
- Fever and sweating
- Changes in blood pressure and heart rate
Serious health conditions can occur due to tetanus. It is important to get a diagnosis of tetanus from a health care provider immediately.
- Uncontrolled/involuntary muscular contraction of the vocal cords
- Fractures (broken bones)
- Difficulty breathing
- Blood clots leading to pulmonary embolism
Diagnosis and Treatments
There are no hospital lab tests can confirm tetanus. Diagnosis is done by examining the patient and looking for signs and symptoms of tetanus.
Immediate hospital care for tetanus is important. Providers use a medicine called human tetanus immune globulin (TIG), aggressive wound care, several different medications (e.g. antibiotics), and tetanus vaccines for treatment.
There are four vaccines for tetanus. Deciding which vaccine to receive is based on age and guidance from primary care provider.
DTaP is recommended for children 6 years old and younger. This vaccine protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.
DT is recommended for children 6 years old and younger, including those who cannot receive vaccines for pertussis. This vaccine protects against diphtheria and tetanus.
Tdap is recommended for children 7 years and older, including adults. This vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
Td is recommended for children 7 years and older, including adults. This vaccine protects against tetanus, and diphtheria.
To learn more about tetanus vaccination, please visit CDC.gov/vaccines/vpd/tetanus/index