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What is tetanus?

Also called lockjaw, this infection may start with a puncture wound.

Tetanus is a rare but potentially deadly infection of the brain, spinal cord, and other components of the central nervous system.

Also called lockjaw, the infection most often follows a cut or puncture. Symptoms include headache; fever and sweating; jaw cramping; and painful muscle spasms, often in the stomach.

Tetanus is not contagious and can be prevented by vaccination.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a type of bacterium found in the soil and in the intestines and feces of many household and farm animals. Barnyards and fields fertilized with manure are especially likely to be contaminated.

The bacterium produces a poison that is carried to the brain and spinal cord, where it blocks signals that control muscle movement.

Symptoms

Tetanus often starts with muscle spasms in the jaw, followed by stiffness in the neck and abdominal muscles and difficulty swallowing. The infection also causes stiffness and intense, painful muscle spasms in the back and esophagus. Profuse sweating, a low-grade fever and a rapid heart rate are other signs of the disease.

Treatment

A person with tetanus needs immediate medical treatment in a hospital. Tetanus is fatal in 10% to 20% of cases in the United States. Treatment includes receiving human tetanus immune globulin (TIG), a tetanus vaccine, drugs to control muscle spasms and antibiotics. If the infection is severe, the person may need to have a machine help with breathing.

Prevention

Preventing a tetanus infection starts with immunization. Almost all cases of tetanus in the U.S. are in people who have never been vaccinated or haven't kept up with booster shots. Tetanus shots are given separately or as part of a combined vaccine, depending on your age and vaccination history.

In children, tetanus can be prevented through a series of shots called DTaP. Infants and children need five doses of the DTaP vaccine by age 6. A separate tetanus shot can be given to kids and adults who haven't been vaccinated. Booster shots are also recommended for adolescents and adults every 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You can also help prevent serious tetanus infection at home. Cuts, scrapes and other wounds that may be contaminated with tetanus need to be cleaned quickly to reduce the amount of bacteria.

Knowing your family's vaccine status is also an important part of preventing tetanus infection. If you are not sure whether you or your child have been vaccinated, or if you or your child have not had a recent tetanus booster shot, talk with your doctor about bringing your immunizations up-to-date. Even those who have had tetanus can get it again, so it's important that everyone have a tetanus booster shot.

reviewed 8/22/2019

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