Often called lockjaw, tetanus is a bacterial infection that causes painful muscle spasms and can lead to death. The tetanus vaccine has made tetanus a preventable disease. Thanks to its widespread use, lockjaw has become very rare in the U.S. Even so, many adults in the U.S. need to be vaccinated against tetanus.
You cannot get tetanus from another person. You can get it through a cut or other wound. Tetanus bacteria are commonly present in soil, dust, water, and manure. The tetanus bacteria can infect you even through a tiny scratch. But you are more likely to get tetanus through deep punctures from wounds created by nails or knives. The bacteria travels via blood or nerves to your central nervous system.
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What are the symptoms of tetanus?
Tetanus symptoms result from a toxin produced by tetanus bacteria. Symptoms often begin around a week after infection. But this may range from three days to three weeks. The most common symptom is a stiff jaw, which can become "locked." This is how the disease came to be called lockjaw.
Symptoms of tetanus may include:
- Muscle stiffness, starting in the jaw, then the neck and the arms, legs, or abdomen
- Trouble swallowing
- Restlessness and irritability
- Sore throat
- Sweating and fever
- Palpitations and high or low blood pressure
- Muscle spasms in the face, causing a steady smile or grin
If not treated, tetanus can cause death from suffocation.
How and when should you receive the tetanus vaccine?
You receive tetanus shots in the deltoid (shoulder) muscle. If you did not receive a tetanus vaccine as a child, you should start with a three-dose primary series protecting against both tetanus and diphtheria (Td). You receive this over a period of seven to 12 months. If you are younger than 65, one of these doses should also include protection against pertussis (whooping cough). This three-in-one combination for adults and children 11 or older is called Tdap. Vaccination against pertussis is especially important for those in direct contact with young infants or patients.
After receiving the primary series, get a Td booster every 10 years.
Which adults should receive the tetanus vaccine?
You should have a tetanus shot if you:
- Did not receive a primary series of tetanus shots as a child
- Have not had a tetanus booster in the last 10 years
- Have recovered from tetanus (lockjaw)