Tetanus is an infection of the nervous system. It can be deadly when it is not treated.


It is caused by type of bacteria that is found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin. This makes a toxin that causes tetanus.

Puncture Wound

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Risk Factors

It is most common in places that have rich, moist climates. Other things that may raise your risk are:

  • Not having an up to date tetanus vaccination
  • Injury
  • Exposing injuries to soil or unclean items
  • Childbirth in places that are not clean
  • Long term wounds, such as a diabetic foot ulcers
  • IV drug use


Symptoms may be:

  • A stiff, cramping jaw or neck
  • Muscle spasms, often in the belly
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Problems being able to swallow and breathe
  • Jerking movements
  • Staring off
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Fever


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. An exam will be done. You may be asked whether your vaccination is up to date. This may be enough to make the diagnosis.


Care is needed right away. Some people may need help with breathing. Other choices are:


These medicines may be given:

  • Tetanus immune globulin to stop the tetanus toxin
  • Antibiotics to treat infection
  • Medicine to control muscle spasms, such as benzodiazepines
  • Medicine to help the nervous system work better

A tetanus vaccine may be given to those who have not had a recent one.


Surgery may be needed to open and clean any skin wounds.


The best way to lower the chances of this illness is to get the vaccination:

  • Children should get the, DTaP vaccine series.
  • A single dose of Tdap vaccine is needed for children aged 11 years or older.
  • Adults should get a booster dose of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td) every 10 years.

Other things that can lower the risk are:

  • Cleaning all wounds right away
  • Seeking care for severe wounds

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society

The College of Family Physicians of Canada


Tetanus. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated May 14, 2018. Accessed October 21, 2019.

Tetanus vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated February 28, 2019. Accessed October 21, 2019.

Thwaites CL, Beeching NJ, et al. Maternal and neonatal tetanus. Lancet. 2015 Jan 24;385(9965):362-370.

Last reviewed September 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD  Last Updated: 10/21/2019