What is tetanus?
Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing painful muscle spasms throughout the body. It is often fatal. Because of immunisation, few people now get tetanus in Australia. Everybody should be vaccinated and have boosters at the correct time throughout life.
Tetanus is sometimes referred to as 'lock jaw', because it typically causes spasms of the jaw making it close firmly (lock).
What are the symptoms of tetanus?
Symptoms usually take 3 to 21 days to show after infection. Symptoms include:
- muscle spasms, especially in the face or neck
- painful fits that can last for several minutes
- a locked jaw (not being able to open the mouth)
- difficulty talking and swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heartbeat
Tetanus is often fatal.
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What causes tetanus?
Tetanus is caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium tetani (C. tetani). The bacteria produce a toxin (or poison), which attacks the nervous system. This leads to muscle spam.
C. tetani live 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, such as:
- any wound that is not clean
- a bite from an animal or human
- any wound that pierces the skin, like a scratch from a rusty nail
Even something as trivial as a prick from a rose thorn can become infected with C. tetani, 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.
How is tetanus diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose tetanus by examining recent wounds that have been in contact with soil, checking for symptoms like stiff neck and jaw, and asking you when you last had a tetanus booster.
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How is tetanus treated?
Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the symptoms. People with mild symptoms will be given a tetanus antitoxin and antibiotics.
People who have severe symptoms will be admitted to hospital to treat breathing and muscle paralysis.
Can tetanus be prevented?
Tetanus can be prevented with vaccination, but immunity lessens over time so booster doses are need to ensure you are protected.
The tetanus vaccine is given as part of routine childhood immunisation under the National Immunisation Program. It is 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 between 10 and 15 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 every 10 years is usually recommended for people over 50.
If you are unsure whether your tetanus vaccination is up to date, see your doctor. It is never too late.
Vaccination is your best protection against tetanus. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.
|What age is it recommended?||
Children at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 18 months, 4 years, and between 10 and 15 years.
Pregnant women in the third trimester.
50 years old if you haven’t had a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years.
65 years if you haven’t had a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years.
If you are travelling overseas and haven’t had a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years.
If you have an open or deep, penetrating wound and haven’t had a tetanus vaccine in the last 5 years.
|How many doses are required?||6 doses, then boosters as indicated above.|
|How is it administered?||Injection|
|Is it free?||
Free for children.
Free for people under 20 years old, refugees and other humanitarian entrants of any age.
For everyone else, there is a cost for this vaccine.
Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.
|Common side effects||The vaccine is very safe. Side effects may include redness, swelling or hardness where the needle went in.|
Resources and support
- For more information about tetanus, visit the Department of Health’s tetanus web page.
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Last reviewed: April 2021