Tetanus is a serious infection that causes painful muscle contractions, particularly of the neck and jaw. It is often fatal. Because of immunisation, few people now get tetanus in Australia. Everybody should be vaccinated.
What is tetanus?
Tetanus affects the nerves in your brain and spinal cord, which leads to painful muscle spasms throughout your body. It is sometimes referred to as ‘lock jaw’, because it typically causes spasms of the jaw making it close firmly (lock).
Tetanus is caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium tetani (C. tetani). The bacteria produce a toxin (or poison), which attacks your nervous system leading to muscle spam.
C. tetani lives mainly in soil, dust and manure, but can be found anywhere. You can become infected if the bacterium enters your bloodstream through an open wound. Even something as trivial as a prick from a rose thorn can become infected, but some wounds are more likely to become infected, for example if they are very deep, contain a foreign body like a splinter, or there is a wound over a broken bone (a compound fracture).
You are more at risk of tetanus if there is a lot of pus, damage to the tissues (such as with a burn) or if the wound has been contaminated with soil, dust or manure.
You cannot catch C. tetani or tetanus itself from other people.
After infection, symptoms usually take between 7 and 21 days to show. Symptoms include:
- muscle spasms
- stiffness and rigidity in your jaw or neck muscles
- stiff abdominal muscles
- painful body spasms, often triggered by noises or a light touch
- lock jaw
- difficulty talking and swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- stiffness or pain in the shoulders, back and neck
- rapid heartbeat
- high blood pressure
Tetanus is often fatal.
Tetanus is preventable. The tetanus vaccine is given as part of routine childhood immunisation under the National Immunisation Program. It’s given free of charge at 6 weeks to 2 months, 4 months and again at 6 months old. Booster vaccinations are recommended at 18 months and 4 years. Older children are usually given an additional booster vaccination at 11 to 13 years. You may also need a booster if you are going travelling or if you are injured. After the complete course of tetanus vaccinations, another booster is usually recommended for people over 50.
If you’re unsure whether your tetanus vaccination is up to date, see your doctor. It’s never too late.
Last reviewed: March 2019