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Tetanus In Children


What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust, and the bowel movements of some animals and humans. The bacteria may enter your child's body through a skin wound. A mother can also pass the bacteria to her baby during a vaginal birth. The bacteria produce a toxin that damages nerves. This causes severe muscle spasms. Left untreated, tetanus can be life-threatening.

What are the signs and symptoms of tetanus?

Your child may have stiff and weak muscles only in the area of the wound. This is called localized tetanus. Symptoms may go away without treatment. Your newborn may start to have signs 3 to 14 days after birth. Your older child may develop signs or symptoms within days or months of the infection. The following are common signs and symptoms of tetanus:

  • In newborns, trouble sucking and constant crying
  • Lockjaw (a muscle spasm in the jaw and neck that locks your child's jaw closed)
  • Muscle spasms that are severely painful, often triggered by noise, light, or touch
  • Rigid facial muscles, or raised eyebrows with lips pulled into a grin
  • Rigid abdomen, arm, and leg muscles
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Feeling restless or irritable, or a fast heartbeat or breathing
  • A headache or seizures
  • Sweating, trouble urinating, or a low fever

What increases my child's risk for tetanus?

  • His mother was not immunized against tetanus
  • His umbilical cord stump was not kept clean
  • Missed doses of the tetanus vaccine in your older child
  • In adolescents, use of injected drugs, or use of a needle that was not sterilized, such as during tattooing or piercing
  • An acute or chronic wound, such as a burn, crush injury, or puncture wound
  • An unclean wound, or a clean wound that scraped off the top layer of your child's skin
  • A bone fracture that caused bone to break through your child's skin
  • Surgery or a dental procedure
  • An insect bite

How is tetanus diagnosed and treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child's wound and ask about his symptoms. Tell him if the wound was not cleaned immediately or you saw dirt or other objects in the wound. No tests are available to check for tetanus. Your child's healthcare provider will look for certain signs or symptoms, such as lockjaw, to help diagnose tetanus. If the infection becomes generalized, your child will need to be treated in a hospital. He will be kept in a dark, quiet room to prevent muscle spasms. He may also need the following:

  • Medicines may be given to stop or prevent seizures and muscle spasms. Antitoxin may also be given to stop the toxin from spreading in your child's body. Medicine may be given to fight a bacterial infection or to control pain. Your child's healthcare provider may also give your child a dose of the tetanus vaccine.
  • Surgery may be used to remove tissue affected by tetanus. Debridement is a type of surgery used to clean a wound and remove dead tissue. Objects such as dirt or glass will also be removed.

What can I do to prevent tetanus?

  • Talk to your child's healthcare provider about the tetanus vaccine. The tetanus vaccine is given to children in several doses. A tetanus infection will not make your child immune from the tetanus toxin. If you are pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider about the vaccine. It is given during the second half of pregnancy to prevent tetanus from passing to your baby during birth.
  • Clean every wound immediately. Apply pressure to your child's wound to stop any bleeding. Clean the wound with soap and water. Remove dirt or other objects from the wound. Change the bandage every day and if it gets wet or dirty.
  • Clean for your baby's cord stump as directed. Always wash your hands before you care for your baby's cord stump. Gently wash the stump and the skin around it with mild soap and warm water during every bath. Gently pat the stump dry after your baby's bath. If the stump gets dirty from urine or bowel movement, wash it off right away. Your baby's healthcare provider may suggest you use rubbing alcohol or water and a cotton swab to clean the stump. Gently wipe from the base to the top of the stump. Clean the stump with each diaper change.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child has trouble breathing or swallowing.
  • Your child's heartbeat is very fast or not regular.
  • Your child has muscle spasms in his face.
  • Your child starts to feel muscle cramps or spasms near a wound.
  • Your child has a wound that is large or cannot be cleaned.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has an open wound or a puncture wound.
  • You do not know if your child's tetanus vaccines are current.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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