Tetanus (also known as lockjaw) is caused by an infection leading to marked prolonged muscle spasms. The infection creates a toxin that affects the nervous system. It can be fatal if left untreated.
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Tetanus is caused by specific bacteria that is found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin. Once inside the body, the bacteria create a toxin. This toxin causes tetanus.
Factors that may increase your chance of tetanus include:
Tetanus may cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is mainly based on the medical history.
Your doctor may test the wound. A culture will grow the bacteria causing the infection. Culture results are not always accurate for tetanus.
Treatment may include:
Tetanus can cause severe problems with breathing or swallowing. A breathing tube may be inserted in the throat. This will help keep the airway open until you heal. A surgical procedure called a tracheotomy may be done. This will provide an open airway if your upper airway cannot be accessed.
The best means of prevention is immunization. The immunization schedule for tetanus is as follows:
If you or your child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to the doctor. There are catch-up schedules available.
In addition to the vaccine, you can prevent tetanus by taking proper care of 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
ACOG Committee Opinion No. 566: Update on immunization and pregnancy: Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccination. Obstet Gynecol. 2013;121(6):1411-1414. Reaffirmed 2015.
Strikas RA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), ACIP Child/Adolescent Immunization Work Group. Advisory committee on immunization practices recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0 through 18 years—United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64(4):93-94.
Tetanus. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114650/Tetanus . Updated May 17, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Tetanus (lockjaw) vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
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Updated November 22, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2017.
1/24/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114650/Tetanus : Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis (tdap) vaccine from the advisory committee on immunization practices, 2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60(1):13-15.
11/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114650/Tetanus : Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap) in pregnant women and persons who have or anticipate having close contact with an infant aged <12 months—Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60:1424-1426.
4/1/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114650/Tetanus : Bridges CB, Coyne-Beasley T, et al. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended immunization schedule for adults aged 19 years or older—United States, 2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014. 63(7):110-112.
Last reviewed September 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 9/14/2016