About Tetanus

Key points

  • Bacteria called Clostridium tetani cause tetanus.
  • Tetanus is a serious disease and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Vaccines are the best way to protect against tetanus.
Bare feet of a man and child in grass.

What it is

Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria called Clostridium tetani (C. tetani), that are found in the environment. Tetanus is an uncommon but very serious disease that requires immediate treatment in a hospital.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms typically occur between 3 and 21 days (average 8 days) after someone is exposed to C. tetani.

The first sign is most commonly spasms of the jaw muscles, or "lockjaw."

Other symptoms can include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sudden, involuntary muscle spams — often in the stomach
  • Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
  • Seizures (jerking or staring)
  • Headache
  • Fever and sweating
  • Changes in blood pressure and heart rate

Contact your healthcare provider‎‎

Tetanus requires immediate treatment. Contact your healthcare provider if you have tetanus symptoms.


Tetanus can cause serious health problems, including:

  • Laryngospasm (uncontrolled tightening of the vocal cords)
  • Fracture (broken bone)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage in lungs caused by a blood clot)
  • Aspiration pneumonia (lung infection from inhaling spit or vomit)
  • Breathing difficulty

Tetanus can lead to death (1 in 10 cases in the United States are fatal).

Risk factors

Anyone can get tetanus. However, several factors can increase risk for tetanus infection.

Vaccination status

People who have never received a tetanus vaccine are at increased risk. Similarly, people who are not up to date with their 10-year tetanus booster shots are also at increased risk.

Recent wound

People with a recent wound are at increased risk for tetanus. This is especially true if the wound is deep or contaminated with dirt.

Other risk factors

The following risk factors also increase risk of tetanus:

  • Being 70 years or older
  • Having diabetes
  • Having an imunocompromising condition
  • Using injection drugs


Tetanus bacteria can get into someone's body through broken skin, usually through injuries.


People of all ages need tetanus vaccines. DTaP for young children, Tdap for preteens, and Tdap or Td for adults.
CDC recommends tetanus vaccines for everyone.

Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus

The best way to prevent tetanus is to get vaccinated. CDC recommends tetanus vaccination for everyone.

Keep Reading: Tetanus Vaccination

Care for wounds to prevent infection

Immediate and good wound care can also help prevent infection.

  • Apply first aid to even minor, non-infected wounds
  • Wash hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub
  • Consult a healthcare provider if you have concerns and need advice

Medicine may be needed in some cases

Medicine called human tetanus immune globulin (TIG) can help prevent tetanus. Healthcare providers can use it when someone isn't up to date with tetanus vaccination and has serious or contaminated wounds.

Testing and diagnosis

Healthcare providers usually decide if someone has tetanus by looking for common signs and symptoms. They may also ask about a recent history of cuts, scrapes, punctures, and trauma.

No lab tests can confirm tetanus.

Treatment and recovery

Tetanus is a medical emergency requiring:

  • Evaluation and care in the hospital
  • Immediate treatment with TIG
  • Aggressive wound care
  • Drugs to control muscle spasms
  • Antibiotics
  • Tetanus vaccination

Depending on how serious the infection is, someone with tetanus may need a machine to help them breathe.