Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a serious but preventable disease that affects the body's muscles and nerves.

It's often referred to as "lockjaw" because it can cause painful spasms and stiffness in your jaw muscles.

Tetanus is a serious infection that can be life-threatening, and is easily prevented with vaccination.

It is caused by a toxin produced by spores of the bacteria Clostridium tetani. These bacteria live in the environment, including in soil, dust, and animal feces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Any time you get a wound that may become contaminated with soil or environmental contents, you are at risk for tetanus.

Once the bacteria get into the wound, they can produce a toxin that affects the abilities of muscles to work. This can cause stiffening and rigidity of muscles, which is a very serious condition, especially once it affects the muscles used to breathe, notes the Mayo Clinic.

The disease can lead to serious complications, and even death. Tetanus is a medical emergency that requires treatment in a hospital.

Most cases occur in people who have not been vaccinated.

Causes and Risk Factors of Tetanus

Tetanus is different from other vaccine-preventable diseases because it does not spread from person to person.

The bacteria that causes the disease are usually found in soil, dust, and manure and enter the body through breaks in the skin. These cuts or puncture wounds can be caused by contaminated objects (for example, cutting your foot on a rusty nail).

Tetanus cases have developed from the following:
  • Puncture wounds — including from splinters, body piercings, tattoos, and injection drugs
  • Gunshot wounds
  • Compound fractures
  • Burns
  • Surgical wounds
  • Injection drug use
  • Animal or insect bites
  • Infected foot ulcers
  • Dental infections
  • Infected umbilical stumps in newborns born of inadequately vaccinated mothers
People with diabetes or a history of immunosuppression and intravenous drug users may be at higher risk for tetanus, sccording to the CDC.Diabetes was associated with 13 percent of all reported tetanus cases from 2009 through 2017, and a quarter of all tetanus deaths. Intravenous drug users accounted for 7 percent of cases from 2009 through 2017.
Neonatal tetanus is a form of the disease that occurs in newborns. A newborn's umbilical cord stump, the part that’s left after the cord is cut, can become contaminated. Most infants who get this form of the disease die, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
This form occurs very rarely in developed countries. Neonatal tetanus is particularly common in rural areas where most deliveries are at home without adequate sterile procedures.

Duration of Tetanus

Symptoms, including spasms, can last for several minutes at a time and continue for three to four weeks.
Complete recovery from the disease may take months.

Complications of Tetanus

According to the CDC, serious health problems that can happen because of tetanus include:
  • Uncontrolled or involuntary tightening of the vocal cords (laryngospasm)
  • Broken bones (fractures)
  • Infections acquired by a patient during a hospital visit (nosocomial infections)
  • Blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a blood clot that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream (pulmonary embolism)
  • Pneumonia, a lung infection, that develops by breathing in foreign materials (aspiration pneumonia)
  • Breathing difficulty, possibly leading to death
Severe tetanus-induced (tetanic) muscle spasms can interfere with or stop your breathing. Respiratory failure is the most common cause of death. The lack of oxygen induces cardiac arrest and death. Pneumonia is another cause of death.

Related Conditions to Tetanus

Strychnine poisoning is the only condition that truly mimics tetanus by causing muscle spasms.
However, a number of conditions may also be associated with trismus, a painful condition in which the chewing muscles of the jaw become contracted. These include:
  • Local infections
  • Trauma to the jaw
  • Systemic diseases (such as lupus and scleroderma)
  • Neoplasms (an abnormal mass of tissue)
  • Central nervous system disorders

Resources We Love

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

A great source for up-to-date health information for many diseases, including tetanus.

Mayo Clinic

Here you can find helpful information on the symptoms and treatment for tetanus, as well as immunization schedules and details on vaccinations.

Additional reporting by Cathy Cassata.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Tetanus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 28, 2019.
  • Tetanus. Mayo Clinic. February 22, 2019.
  • Tetanus. KidsHealth. July 2018.
  • Tetanus: Questions and Answers [PDF]. Immunization Action Coalition. June 2020.
  • About Tetanus: Symptoms and Complications. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 28, 2019.
  • Tetanus: For Clinicians. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 23, 2020.
  • Tetanus. World Health Organization.
  • Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals: Neonatal Tetanus. World Health Organization. August 14, 2020.
  • Tetanus. Merck Manual Consumer Version. December, 2019.
  • Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases — The Pink Book: Chapter 21: Tetanus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 15, 2019.
  • Tetanus: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. February 22, 2019.
  • About Tetanus: Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 28, 2019.
  • Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis Vaccine Recommendations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 22, 2020.
  • Thwaites DL, Beeching NJ, Newton CR. Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus. The Lancet. January 24, 2015.
  • About Tetanus. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. February 28, 2019.
  • Tetanus. World Health Organization. May 9, 2018.
  • Srigley, J. A., Haider, S., et al. A Lethal Case of Generalized Tetanus. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal. June 14, 2011.
  • Trismus. Oral Cancer Foundation.
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response: Facts About Strychnine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 4, 2018.


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