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Patient education: Tetanus (The Basics)
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Patient education: Tetanus (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Aug 2017. | This topic last updated: Jun 07, 2016.

What is tetanus? — Tetanus is a serious infection that causes muscle stiffness and spasms. It is sometimes called "lockjaw" because muscle spasms can clench the jaw shut.

Tetanus is caused by bacteria (germs) that live in the soil. They can get into your body through a cut or scrape. Most people in the United States are protected from these bacteria because they have gotten vaccines against them.

What are the symptoms of tetanus? — The symptoms include:

Stiff jaw or neck muscles, which make it hard to move your jaw or neck normally

Strange-looking smile that does not go away when you try to relax your mouth

Tight, painful muscles that do not let go when you try to relax them

Trouble breathing, swallowing, or both

Feeling irritable or restless

Sweating even when you are not exercising or hot

Heartbeat that is faster than usual, or irregular heartbeat

Fever

Painful muscle spasms

People who are very sick with tetanus can have muscle spasms that force the body into a "bridge" position. They might have:

Clenched fists

Back arched off the floor or bed

Legs stretched out

Arms moving back and forth

Trouble breathing – They might even stop breathing during a muscle spasm.

Some people with tetanus have tight muscles and muscle spasms in just one part of the body. For example, they might have stiff, hard belly muscles. Tetanus in the head or neck can cause:

Trouble swallowing

Stiff jaw or neck muscles

Severe pain in the face or head

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — See your doctor or nurse right away if:

You get a puncture wound, for example from a nail that goes through your skin.

You get a cut, scrape, or other injury you cannot clean completely.

You have an injury that leaves something (like a nail or glass) inside your body.

An animal bites you.

You have diabetes, and get a sore on your foot, leg, or other place.

You have a stiff jaw or neck, other tight muscles you cannot relax, or painful muscle spasms.

You have trouble breathing or swallowing.

It is especially important to see a doctor or nurse if you get a puncture wound or animal bite and your last tetanus shot was 5 years ago or longer, or if you do not remember getting a tetanus shot.

Is there a test for tetanus? — No. There is no simple test. But your doctor or nurse should be able to tell if you have it by learning about your symptoms and vaccine history, and by doing an exam. This infection is most likely in people who have had an injury and who have not had the tetanus vaccine at all or not had the right vaccine boosters.

Is tetanus dangerous? — Yes. People with tetanus need to go to the hospital, and some people even die from it. The muscle spasms can stop your breathing.

How is tetanus treated? — Doctors treat tetanus in the hospital, sometimes in the intensive care unit (ICU). Treatments include:

Cleaning cuts or scrapes to remove skin and tissue that could have tetanus bacteria on it

Giving medicines to fight the infection

Giving a tetanus vaccine booster

Giving medicine and other treatments to reduce muscle spasms, breathing problems, pain, and other symptoms

Using a ventilator (breathing machine) if you have trouble breathing on your own

Using a feeding tube if you cannot eat or drink on your own

Having physical therapy to help muscles recover

Can tetanus be prevented? — Yes. To reduce your chances of getting tetanus, do these things:

Get a tetanus vaccine. This is a medicine that teaches your body how to fight tetanus. Most children growing up in the United States get this vaccine as part of their routine childhood vaccines.

Get regular tetanus booster shots. Adults should get tetanus booster shots every 10 years. For bad wounds, you will need to get a tetanus booster shot if you haven't had one in the last 5 years. If you have a bad wound and you haven't received all of your tetanus vaccines or you are not sure if you have, you will need a tetanus booster shot and another shot to fight any tetanus bacteria that got in the wound.

Wash cuts or scrapes with soap and water and use antibiotic ointment on them. See a doctor or nurse if you cannot get all the dirt out or cannot see all the way into the wound.

Do NOT inject illegal drugs, or at least use clean needles if you do inject drugs or anything else.

More on this topic

Patient education: Taking care of cuts and scrapes (The Basics)
Patient education: Animal bites (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for babies and children age 0 to 6 years (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for children age 7 to 18 years (The Basics)

Patient education: Adult vaccines (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Why does my child need vaccines? (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Animal bites (Beyond the Basics)

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