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Tetanus - Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

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Tetanus is an infection that causes muscle spasms and lockjaw, also known as trismus. Read the article to know more.

Written by

Dr. Geethika. B

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Pandian. P

Published At June 17, 2022
Reviewed AtNovember 9, 2023


Tetanus is a potentially fatal central nervous system infection caused by the toxin of the bacterium Clostridium tetani. Clostridium tetani typically enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus bacteria can be found in soil and manure. It can also be found in the human intestine and elsewhere. Tetanus symptoms include jaw, abdominal, and back muscle stiffness, a fast pulse, fever, sweating, painful muscle spasms, and difficulty swallowing. The tetanus vaccine can reduce the risk of infection following an injury. Tetanus necessitates immediate medical attention and treatment with medications and injections of tetanus antitoxin.

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a potentially fatal central nervous system disease. It is caused by a toxin produced by the tetanus bacterium. Typically, the bacterium enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus is more common in hotter climates or during the summer months. Tetanus differs from other vaccine-preventable diseases in that it is not transmitted from person to person. Bacteria are typically found in soil, dust, and manure and enter the body through skin breaks like cuts or puncture wounds caused by contaminated objects. Tetanus is extremely rare in the United States due to widespread immunization.

What Are the Causes of Tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. Tetanus bacteria spores can be found in a variety of environments. When the spores enter the body, they transform into bacteria. Tetanus infects the body in a variety of ways. The spores can enter the body through broken skin, which is usually caused by injuries from contaminated objects. Tetanus bacteria are more likely to infect specific skin breaks. These are some causes:

  • Contaminated wounds (with dirt, feces, or saliva).

  • Puncture wounds are due to an object puncturing the skin, such as a nail or a needle.

  • Burns.

  • Injuries caused by crushing.

  • Injuries due to dead tissues.

  • Any superficial wounds (when only the topmost layer of skin is scraped off).

  • Surgical techniques.

  • Bite from insects.

  • Dental infections.

  • Fractures that are compounded (a break in the bone where it is exposed).

  • Infections and chronic sores.

  • Use of intravenous (IV) drugs.

  • Intramuscular injections (shots given in a muscle).

The incubation period, or the time between exposure and illness, is usually between three to 21 days. However, depending on the type of wound, it can range from one day to several months. The majority of cases are present within 14 days. Doctors generally see shorter incubation periods with wounds that are more heavily contaminated in people with a more serious illness and those cases with poor prognosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Tetanus?

Tetanus can cause serious health problems, such as being unable to open one's mouth and having difficulty swallowing and breathing. Tetanus symptoms include:

  • Cramps in the jaw.

  • Muscle spasms are sudden, tightening of involuntary muscles, most commonly in the stomach.

  • Painful muscle stiffness all over the body.

  • Difficulty in swallowing.

  • Staring spell or jerking (seizures).

  • Headache.

  • Sweating and fever.

  • Blood pressure and heart rate fluctuations.

What Are the Complications of Tetanus?

Tetanus can cause a variety of serious health problems, including:

  • Laryngospasm: Involuntary or uncontrolled tightening of the vocal cords.
  • Aspiration Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by inhaling foreign materials.
  • Bone Fractures: A condition of broken bones.
  • Hospital-Acquired Infections: Infections acquired by a patient during a hospital stay.
  • Breathing Difficulties: This may result in death in 1 in 10 cases.
  • Pulmonary Embolism: A blood clot from another part of the body travels through the bloodstream and blocks the main artery of the lung or one of its branches.

What Is the Diagnosis of Tetanus?

The diagnosis of tetanus is based on the signs and symptoms experienced by the person. A physical examination will be performed and the doctor enquires about the medical history of the affected person. There is no specific lab test to confirm tetanus.

How Is Tetanus Treated?

The tetanus treatment will be determined by healthcare providers based on the following factors:

  • Age.

  • Overall health as well as medical history.

  • The extent of the disease.

  • How well the patient can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies.

  • The duration of the disease.

  • Patient's preference.

Tetanus treatment (or reducing the risk of tetanus after an injury) may include the use of:

  • Spasm-controlling medications.

  • Proper cleaning of the wound.

  • A series of injections of tetanus antitoxin.

  • If the patient has trouble breathing on their own, they should be on a ventilator.

  • Antibiotics.

  • Other medications are used to treat pain and symptoms such as an increased heartbeat.

Some medications which help to deal with tetanus are:

  • Tetanus Immune Globulin (TIG):

TIG is the antitoxin of tetanus, which helps to eliminate some of the toxins. This helps to decrease the severity of the illness, but it fails to eliminate the toxin that is already affecting the CNS (central nervous system).

  • Antibiotics:

If there are signs of infection surrounding the wound, the doctors may recommend antibiotics.

  • Muscle Relaxers:

Tetanus causes muscle spasms, where muscle relaxants help to reduce muscle spasms.

  • Vaccine Booster:

Having tetanus will not give any future protection, so the doctor may recommend vaccination or booster.

How to Prevent Tetanus?

To help prevent tetanus infection, vaccination, and proper wound care are essential. Doctors can also use medicine to help prevent tetanus in cases where someone has been seriously injured and has not received tetanus vaccine protection. Having the tetanus vaccine up to date is the most effective way to prevent tetanus. Vaccine protection, like prior infection protection, does not last a lifetime. This means that even if a person has previously had tetanus or received the vaccine, they must continue to receive it on a regular basis to maintain a high level of protection against this serious disease.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), tetanus vaccines are recommended for people of all ages, with booster shots throughout life. Immediate and proper wound care can also aid in the prevention of infection. Even minor, non-infected wounds such as blisters, scrapes, or any break in the skin should not be delayed in receiving first aid. Hands should be washed frequently with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub should be used if washing is not possible.

How Long Time Is Required to Recover From Tetanus?

Once the person is affected with tetanus and starts to experience signs and symptoms, it takes two to three weeks for the disease to take its course. With the proper method of treatment most people recover, but it takes many months to recover once affected by tetanus completely.


The prognosis after tetanus is determined by the time between the first symptom and the first spasm. In general, with such a short time to symptom onset, the prognosis is bleak. Tetanus recovery is slow, and it can take months. The prognosis for both neonatal and cephalic tetanus is poor. Some patients experience hypotonia and autonomic dysfunction for months or years. Because the infection does not confer immunity even those who survive, require tetanus toxoid. Patients usually survive this illness, though recovery is slow, and some may remain hypotonic.

Frequently Asked Questions


Can a Person Survive Tetanus?

Tetanus is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 10 % to 20 % of tetanus infections are fatal.


How Does a Person Get Tetanus?

The spores of tetanus bacteria gain access to the body through cuts in the skin, generally due to injuries from contaminated objects.


What Are the Chances of Having tetanus?

Tetanus is a rare disease now. However, unvaccinated farmers, gardeners, firefighters, and construction workers can easily get it.


What Are the Manifestations of Tetanus?

Tetanus mainly manifests itself as follows:
- Painful muscle spasms and stiff, immovable muscles of the jaw (lockjaw).
- The tension of lips muscles.
- Painful spasms and rigidity of the neck muscles.
- Difficulty in swallowing.
The rigidity of abdominal muscles.
- On the progression of the disease, other signs and symptoms may appear, like:
- Hypertension.
- Hypotension.
- Increased heart rate.
- Fever.
- Extreme perspiration.


For How long Do the Manifestations of Tetanus Remain Dormant?

The incubation period for tetanus is between 3 to 21 days. However, it varies according to the type of wound and may occur in one day to several months. Usually, the symptoms occur within 14 days.


Does Tetanus Go Away On Its Own?

No, tetanus does not go away without treatment as there is no cure for it, and it can turn fatal.


What Are the Consequences of Not Getting a Tetanus Shot on Exposure to a Rusty Metal?

If vaccination and treatment for tetanus are not taken on time, then it may turn fatal by affecting the respiratory muscles and hampering breathing.


Does It Get Too Late to Get a Tetanus Shot After an Injury?

If a person has not received the three doses of tetanus vaccination followed by a booster dose in the last ten years, then he is at a higher risk of getting tetanus. Tetanus vaccination can be taken in the next 24 hours after having an injury.


Is a Tetanus Shot Needed for a Small Scratch?

A tetanus shot is needed for a small scratch if it causes a break in the skin and the tetanus immunization is not up to date.


Do All Rusted Metals Contain Tetanus Toxin?

It is not rust that causes tetanus. Instead, it is the cut or a break in the skin that gives entry to the bacteria into the body and causes tetanus.


What Does a Lockjaw Feel Like?

A lockjaw feels like a muscular stiffness and pain in the jaw and leads to difficulty in jaw movements.


How Early After a Cut Should a Person Get a Tetanus Shot?

A tetanus shot should be taken as soon as possible after a cut. However, it should be administered even to those who approach late for medical attention.
Dr. Pandian. P
Dr. Pandian. P

General Surgery


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