Tetanus

Introduction

Tetanus is a serious but rare infection caused by bacteria. It usually occurs when a flesh wound becomes contaminated. If it is not treated, tetanus may lead to complications, which can be fatal.

However, vaccination and improvements in treatment mean that deaths from tetanus are now very rare in the UK.

Causes

Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria called Clostridium tetani. The bacteria can live in many different substances including:

  • soil
  • house dust
  • animal and human waste, such as manure 

The tetanus bacteria usually enter the body through a wound in the skin or a serious burn. Once inside, they multiply and release a powerful type of poison, known as a neurotoxin.

The neurotoxin disrupts the normal workings of the nerves, causing symptoms such as stiffness and muscle spasms.

Read more about the causes of tetanus and who is at risk.

Other symptoms of tetanus include:

  • muscle stiffness and spasms in the jaw muscles – this is often referred to as lockjaw
  • difficulty swallowing

Treating tetanus

If you have a deep wound that could become contaminated by the tetanus bacteria and you have been vaccinated, you will be given a medication called tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG) as a precaution.

If you have not been vaccinated and you develop a tetanus infection, you will need to be admitted to hospital for treatment. Treatment usually involves a combination of medications, such as antibiotics, muscle relaxants and antitoxins, to combat the effects of the infection.

A ventilator (a machine to assist with breathing) can be used to help prevent suffocation.

Most people survive the infection, although it can take up to four months to make a full recovery.

Read more about treating tetanus.

Tetanus vaccination

A vaccination to protect against tetanus is given as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

The full course of the tetanus vaccination consists of five doses. The first three doses are given during early childhood. This is followed by two booster doses. The first booster dose is given at around four years of age. The second one is given 10 years later.

After the full course, you should have lifelong immunity against tetanus. However, if you or your child has a deep wound, it's best to get medical advice. 

If you are not sure whether you've had the full course, for example because you were born in another country, contact your GP for advice.

Read more about preventing tetanus.

Last updated: 05 April 2012

Continue to next section: Symptoms of tetanus