What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that causes severe muscle spasms, especially in the neck and jaw (called lockjaw). Around one in 10 people who get the disease will die from it. Babies and older people have the highest risk of dying from tetanus.

Tetanus can lead to:

  • suffocation or being unable to breathe
  • pneumonia
  • very high blood pressure
  • very low blood pressure
  • heart attack.

Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria called Clostridium tetani. The bacteria make a toxin in your body that causes the disease.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

Tetanus symptoms include:

  • muscle spasms, especially in the face and neck
  • painful fits that can last for minutes
  • not being able to open your mouth (lockjaw)
  • swallowing problems
  • breathing problems
  • heart problems
  • fever.

Symptoms usually start between three and 21 days after catching tetanus.

Who is at risk from tetanus?

Tetanus can affect people of any age. Tetanus is rare in Australia because most people are immunised. People at high risk of disease include:

  • people who have not been immunised against tetanus
  • people who have not had a booster immunisation in the past 10 years.

Most deaths from tetanus occur in people aged over 70 years.

How do you get tetanus?

The bacteria that cause tetanus are found in soil everywhere. The bacteria can get into your bloodstream through open wounds.

Any kind of wound that is not a clean, minor cut is a ‘tetanus-prone’ wound. This means you could get tetanus if you are not immunised.

Tetanus does not spread from person to person, so you cannot catch tetanus from someone else.

How do you prevent tetanus?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against tetanus.

Tetanus vaccines protect you from getting infected and prevent serious disease. Because immunity fades over time, you need booster doses to make sure you stay protected.

If you have a tetanus-prone wound (any wound that is not a clean, minor cut), clean and disinfect the wound. See your doctor for a tetanus vaccine booster if you haven’t had one in the past five years.

For more information on tetanus immunisation, see Tetanus immunisation service.

How do you know if you have tetanus?

If you think you or one of your family members has tetanus, see your doctor urgently.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you have had a tetanus immunisation.

How do you get treated for tetanus?

Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that is treated in hospital. Treatment may include:

  • tetanus antitoxin to neutralise the toxin
  • medicines to stop fitting
  • life support to help you keep breathing.

Even with treatment, some people do die from tetanus.

More information

Contacts

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
4 June 2018