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Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 1, 2023.

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 often enter the body through a puncture wound or burn. 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?

You may have stiff and weak muscles only in the area of the wound. This is called localized tetanus. Symptoms may go away without treatment, or they may spread. Infection that spreads is called generalized. You may develop any of the following within days or weeks of the infection:

  • Lockjaw (a muscle spasm in the jaw and neck that locks your 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

How is tetanus diagnosed and treated?

Your healthcare provider will examine your wound and ask about your 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 healthcare provider will look for certain signs or symptoms, such as lockjaw, to help diagnose tetanus. If the infection becomes generalized, you will need to be treated in a hospital. You will be kept in a dark, quiet room to prevent muscle spasms. You 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 body. Medicine may be given to fight a bacterial infection or to control pain. Your healthcare provider may also give you 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.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to prevent tetanus?

  • Clean every wound immediately. Apply pressure to the wound to stop any bleeding. Clean the wound with soap and water. Remove dirt or other objects from the wound. Cover the wound with a clean bandage. Change the bandage every day and if it gets wet or dirty.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccines. A tetanus infection does not make you immune from another infection. The DTaP, Tdap, and Td vaccines help protect against tetanus. Your provider can recommend the vaccines that are right for you based on your age and health. The Td vaccine is usually given every 10 years. You will also need Td after a wound if you did not get a booster in the past 5 years. Pregnant women should get 1 dose of Tdap with each pregnancy, during weeks 27 to 36.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing.

Call your doctor if:

  • Your heartbeat is very fast or not regular.
  • You have muscle spasms in your face.
  • You start to feel muscle cramps or spasms near a wound.
  • You have a wound that is large or cannot be cleaned.
  • You have an open wound or a puncture wound.
  • You do not know if your tetanus vaccines are current.
  • You need a tetanus booster shot.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.

© Copyright Merative 2023 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes.

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