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About Tetanus

Tetanus differs from other vaccine-preventable diseases because it is not transmitted from person to person. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and manure and enter the body through cracks in the skin – usually through cuts or puncture wounds caused by contaminated objects.

Today, tetanus is rare in the United States, with an average of about 30 reported cases per year. Almost all cases of tetanus occur in people who have not received all recommended tetanus vaccinations. These include people who have never received tetanus vaccination and adults who do not keep their 10-year recuperation vaccinations up to date.

Causes and Transmission

Tetanus is an infection caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. Spores of the tetanus bacteria can be found throughout the environment, including soil, dust and manure. The spores develop into bacteria when they enter the body.

Common Ways Tetanus Gets Into Your Body

The spores can enter the body through broken skin, usually through injuries with contaminated objects. Tetanus bacteria are more likely to infect certain cracks in the skin. These include:

  • Wounds contaminated with dirt, faeces or spit (saliva)
  • Wounds caused by an object that pierced the skin (puncture wounds), e.B. a nail or a needle
  • Burns
  • Bruises
  • Wounds with dead tissue

Other Ways Tetanus Gets Into Your Body

Tetanus bacteria can also infect the body through cracks in the skin caused by:

  • Clean, superficial wounds (if only the top layer of skin is scraped off)
  • Surgical procedures
  • Insect
  • Tooth infections
  • Compound fractures (a fracture of the bone in which it is exposed)
  • Chronic wounds and infections
  • Intravenous (IV) drug use
  • Intramuscular injections (injections into a muscle)

Time from Exposure to Illness

The incubation period – time from exposure to disease – is usually between 3 and 21 days (on average 10 days). However, it can range from one day to several months, depending on the type of wound. Most cases occur within 14 days. In general, doctors see shorter incubation times:

  • More contaminated wounds
  • More serious illness
  • A worse outcome (forecast)

Symptoms and Complications

People often call tetanus “jawlock” because one of the most common signs of this infection is a cramping of the jaw muscles. Tetanus infection can lead to serious health problems, including the inability to open the mouth and have difficulty swallowing and breathing.


Symptoms of tetanus include:

  • Jaw cramps
  • Sudden, involuntary muscle tension (muscle spasms) – often in the stomach
  • Painful muscle stiffening throughout the body
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Twitching or rigid behavior (cramping)
  • Headache
  • Fever and sweating
  • Changes in blood pressure and heart rate


Serious health problems that may occur due to tetanus include:

  • Uncontrolled/involuntary tightening of the vocal cords (laryngospasm)
  • Bone fractures (fractures)
  • Infections contracted by a patient during a hospital stay (hospital infections)
  • Constipation of the main artery of the lungs or one of its branches by a blood clot that has wandered
  • through the bloodstream from another part of the body (pulmonary embolism)
  • Pneumonia caused by inhalation of foreign bodies (aspiration pneumonia)
  • Respiratory distress that may lead to death (1 to 2 in 10 cases are fatal)

Diagnosis and Treatment



Doctors can diagnose tetanus by examining the patient and paying attention to certain signs and symptoms. There are no laboratory tests in the hospital that can confirm tetanus.


Tetanus is a medical emergency that needs to be treated:

  • Treatment in hospital
  • Immediate treatment with a drug called human tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG)
  • Aggressive wound care
  • medicines to control muscle spasms
  • Antibiotics
  • Tetanus vaccination
  • Depending on how severe the infection is, a machine may be required to support breathing.


Vaccination and good wound care are important to prevent tetanus infection. Doctors can also use a drug to prevent tetanus if someone is seriously injured and has no protection from tetanus vaccines.


A current tetanus vaccination is the best way to prevent tetanus. Vaccine protection and an earlier infection do not last a lifetime. This means that if you have ever had tetanus or been vaccinated, you still need to be vaccinated regularly to obtain a high level of protection against this serious disease. The CDC recommends tetanus vaccinations for people of all ages, with refresher vaccinations throughout life. Find out who needs a tetanus vaccine and when.

Good Wound Care

Immediate and good wound care can also help prevent infection.

  • Do not hesitate with the initial care even small, uninfected wounds such as blisters, abrasions or fractures in the skin.
  • Wash your hands with water and soap frequently or use an alcoholic hand cream if washing is not possible.
  • Consult your doctor if you have any concerns and need further advice.


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