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, such as:
- compound fractures, in which there is a wound over a broken bone
- deep wounds
- wounds containing foreign bodies (such as wood splinters)
- pus-filled wounds
- extensive tissue damage (such as burns)
- any wound contaminated with soil, dust or manure.
You cannot catch C. tetani or tetanus itself from other people.
After infection, symptoms usually take between three 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. You may need a booster if you are going travelling. 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: April 2017