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.
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:
- 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) that 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
Are there any adults who should not get the tetanus vaccine?
You should not get a Tdap vaccine if you have had a severe allergic reaction after a previous Tdap vaccine. You also should not get a Tdap vaccine if you have a history of coma or seizures within a week following a previous Tdap vaccine. Talk to your doctor if you have a history of epilepsy or other nervous system problems, severe pain or swelling in the past after a previous tetanus vaccine, or a history of either Guillain-Barre syndrome or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.
It is OK to receive the tetanus vaccine during pregnancy. In fact, current guidelines recommend that all pregnant women receive a Tdap vaccine each time they are pregnant, specifically to prevent pertussis.
Wait to get the Tdap vaccine if you have a moderate to severe acute illness.
What are the tetanus vaccine ingredients?
The vaccines are made up of tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis toxins that have been made nontoxic but they still have the ability to create an immune response. These vaccines do not contain live bacteria.
Are there any dangers or side effects associated with the tetanus vaccine?
It's important to know that, in general, the risk of problems from getting tetanus is much greater than from getting a tetanus vaccine. You cannot get tetanus from the tetanus shot. However, sometimes the tetanus vaccine can cause mild side effects. These may include:
- Skin flushing, itching, or swelling
- Trouble breathing or other respiratory symptoms
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramping
- Dizziness, low blood pressure, a fast heartbeat
If you have any signs of a severe reaction:
- Call 911 or get to a hospital right away.
- Describe when you had the vaccine and what occurred.
- Have a health care professional report the reaction.