Tetanus and neonatal tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a serious but preventable disease that affects the body’s muscles and nerves. It typically arises from a skin wound that becomes contaminated by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. This bacterium is often found in soil and in the intestines and feces of many household and farm animals.

The C. tetani bac­teria cannot grow in the presence of oxygen. However, the bacteria produce spores that are very difficult to kill as they are resistant to heat and many chemical agents.

Tetanus is not spread from person to person.

Common first signs of tetanus are a headache and muscular stiffness in the jaw, followed by stiffness of the neck, difficulty in swallowing, rigidity of abdominal muscles, spasms, sweating and fever. As the toxin produced by the bacteria circulates more widely, the toxin interferes with the normal activity of nerves throughout the body, leading to generalized muscle spasms. Symptoms usually begin 8 days after the infection, but may range in onset from 3 days to 3 weeks. Without treatment, tetanus can be fatal. Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus.

Neonatal tetanus is a form of generalized tetanus in newborn infants that do not have protective passive immunity because the mother is not immune. It usually occurs through infection of the unhealed umbilical stump, particularly when the stump is cut with an unsterile instrument. Neonatal tetanus is estimated to kill over 200,000 newborns each year; almost all these deaths occur in developing countries, while it is very rare in developed nations. –Taken from World Health Organization Factsheet “Tetanus”

There are no hospital lab tests that can confirm tetanus. It is diagnosed by symptoms and is a medical emergency requiring hospitalization.

Every year between 40 and 60 cases of tetanus are reported in the US. Thirty percent of those infected die. Death is more likely in newborn infants of unimmunized mothers and patients over 50 years of age.

Did You Know?

Tetanus enters the body through cuts in the skin. It can get in through even a tiny pinprick or scratch, but it prefers deep puncture wounds or cuts, like those made by nails or knives. Children can also get tetanus following severe burns, ear infections, tooth infections, or animal bites. Rusty nails are often blamed for causing tetanus, but it is the tetanus bacteria—and not rust—that causes the disease. You can get tetanus from a shiny nail as easily as from a rusty one.

–Redbook, Online

The Vaccine

The DTaP vaccine is virtually 100% effective in preventing tetanus, while the protection rates for diphtheria and pertussis are lower. Immunity against tetanus lasts about 10 years; therefore a booster dose of Td (tetanus-diphtheria) vaccine is needed every 10 years to maintain immunity.


World Health Organization

National Network for Immunization Information