What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by Clostridium tetani. The bacteria make a toxin in your body that causes the disease.

Tetanus causes severe muscle spasms, especially in the neck and jaw (called lockjaw). Around 1 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.

Symptoms

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 3 and 21 days after catching tetanus.

Who is at risk

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 it spreads

Spores of the bacteria that cause tetanus are found in soil, dust and animal waste. When the spores enter your body through a cut or sore, they grow into bacteria that produce a very strong toxin.

The bacteria that cause tetanus are found in soil everywhere. Tetanus can enter your bloodstream through:

  • cuts and wounds in your skin
  • any wound that is not a clean
  • animal or human bites.

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

Prevention

Tetanus can be prevented with vaccination, however immunity fades over time so you need booster doses to make sure you stay protected.

You can help avoid getting tetanus by keeping:

  • your tetanus immunisation up to date
  • cuts and wounds clean
  • covering wounds when doing outdoor activities, such as sport, gardening, maintenance around the house.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against tetanus

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose tetanus by:

  • examining recent cuts or wounds that could have been in contact with soil
  • checking for other symptoms such as neck or jaw stiffness, trouble swallowing and irritable behaviour
  • asking when you had your last tetanus booster.

If you have tetanus your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that is treated in hospital over a period of days. Treatment includes:

  • wound care
  • antibiotics
  • tetanus antitoxin
  • medicines to stop seizures)
  • life support, in severe cases.

Contacts

National Immunisation Hotline

Last updated: 
7 November 2018