(Lockjaw)En Español (Spanish Version)
Tetanus is a bacterial infection that affects the nervous system. Tetanus bacteria from soil, dust, or manure enter the body through a break in the skin. The infection may result in severe muscle spasms. Such spasms lead to lockjaw, which prevents opening or closing of the mouth. Tetanus can be fatal.
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A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Your risk of tetanus is increased if you are:
- Not immunized to tetanus
- Not updating tetanus shot regularly
- An IV drug user
- Age: 50 or older
- Have skin sores or wounds
- Have had burns
- Have had exposure of open wounds to soil or animal feces
Symptoms of tetanus may include:
- Stiff jaw muscles (lockjaw) or neck muscles
- Drooling or trouble swallowing
- Muscle spasticity or rigidity
- Pain or tingling at the wound site
- High or low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart beat that is irregular, too fast or too slow
- Cardiac arrest
- Pneumonia (a complication of the infection)
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The diagnosis is mainly based on the medical history. Your doctor may culture the wound, but culture results are not always accurate.
Treatment may include:
- Hospitalization to manage complications of the infection
- Opening and cleaning of the wound, or sometimes surgical removal of the entire wounded area
- Tetanus immune globulin (antibodies against tetanus that help neutralize the tetanus toxin)
- A tetanus shot, if your tetanus vaccine is not up to date
In some cases of trouble breathing or swallowing, a breathing tube may be inserted in the throat to help keep the airway open. In certain situations, a surgical procedure called a tracheotomy may be done to provide an open airway.
The best means of prevention is immunization. All children (with few exceptions) should receive the DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria , tetanus, and pertussis . Another vaccine called Tdap is routinely given to children aged 11-12 years after they have completed the DTaP series of shots. After that, adults should receive a booster dose of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td) every 10 years or after an exposure to tetanus (under some circumstances).
If you or your child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to the doctor. There are catch-up schedules available.
In addition to the vaccine, you can prevent tetanus by taking proper care of wounds:
- Promptly clean all wounds.
- See your doctor for medical care of wounds, especially if you have not had a tetanus vaccination in the last 10 years.
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Canadian Family Physician
Caring for Kids
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ .
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine . 15th ed. McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing; 2001.
National Coalition for Adult Immunization website. Available at: http://www.nfid.org/ .
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website. Available at: http://www.nfid.org .
Recommended adult immunization schedule—United States, 2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep . 2012;6(4). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/adult/mmwr-adult-schedule.pdf . Accessed February 24, 2012.
Recommended immunization schedule for persons aged 7 through 18 years—United States 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/7-18yrs-schedule-pr.pdf . Accessed February 24, 2012.
Vaccines and preventable diseases: tetanus (lockjaw) vaccination. Vaccines and Immunizations, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/tetanus/default.htm#vacc . Accessed: January 29, 2008.
1/31/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : : Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years—United States, 2008. MMWR. 2008;57;Q1-Q4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5701a8.htm . Updated January 10, 2008. Accessed January 28, 2008.
1/24/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis (tdap) vaccine from the advisory committee on immunization practices, 2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60(1):13-15.
11/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap) in pregnant women and persons who have or anticipate having close contact with an infant aged <12 months—Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60:1424-1426.
Last reviewed September 2011 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH
Last updated Updated: 2/24/2012
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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