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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 because there is no cure and 10% to 20% of victims will die.

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, and manure. The tetanus bacteria can infect a person 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 travel via blood or nerves to the 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 or even longer. 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:

  • Headache
  • Muscle stiffness, starting in the jaw, then the neck and the arms, legs, or abdomen
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Sweating and fever
  • Palpitations and high blood pressure
  • Muscle spasms in the face, causing a strange-looking steady smile or grin

If not treated, tetanus can cause death from suffocation.

How and when should you receive the tetanus vaccine?

You normally 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 with the first dose being a three-in-one combination called Tdap that protects against tetanus, diphtheria (Td) and pertussis (whooping cough). The other two doses are a dual vaccine (Td) cover tetanus and diphtheria. You receive these vaccines over a period of seven to 12 months. 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   

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