Health conditions

Tetanus

  • Tetanus is an acute, often fatal disease, caused by a toxin (poison) produced by bacteria.
  • This toxin acts on the central nervous system to cause painful muscle stiffness and spasms.
  • It is important to ensure that your immunisations are kept up-to-date to prevent tetanus.
How serious is it?

Tetanus is a very serious disease. About 20 per cent of people who get tetanus in Australia will die as a result.

It can cause breathing problems and paralysis (unable to move parts of the body). The muscle spasms it causes can be strong enough to break a child’s spine or other bones.

It can take months to recover fully from tetanus.

A child might need weeks of hospital care.

As many as 1 out of 5 people who get tetanus die.

For this reason you should make sure you are fully vaccinated against this disease.

How do you get it?

Tetanus tends to occur in people following injury.

It is caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria (commonly found in soil) that penetrate the skin. Some examples of how this may happen include:

  • a prick from a rose thorn
  • a scratch from a rusty nail
  • a dog bite.

Tetanus does not spread from person to person.

Who is most at risk?

In Australia, tetanus is rare owing to good vaccination uptake. It is uncommon in people who have received 4 or more doses of the tetanus vaccine within the last 10 years.

Tetanus usually occurs in older people:

  • who have never been vaccinated
  • if their immunity from the vaccine has waned.
What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms of tetanus generally appear 3 to 21 days after injury exposure, but can be within a range of 1 day to several months.

Symptoms can include:

  • painful muscle stiffness all over the body
  • trouble swallowing
  • seizures (jerking or staring)
  • fever and sweating
  • high blood pressure and fast heart rate.

Tetanus is often called lockjaw because your jaw muscles tighten and you cannot open your mouth.

How do I know I have it?

If you experience painful muscles, muscle spasms or trouble swallowing after a minor injury (that punctures the skin), you should see your doctor.

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and your immunisation status.

If symptoms are severe you should contact your local emergency department to seek advice and direction.

Notifiable disease

Tetanus is a notifiable disease so doctors, hospitals and laboratories must inform the Department of Health of you or your child’s diagnosis. Notification is confidential.

How is it treated?

Treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.

A tetanus injection is administered to people with mild symptoms, and an antibiotic is used to treat the wound.

In severe cases the person will be admitted to a hospital intensive care unit to treat difficulty in breathing and muscle paralysis.

How can it be prevented?

Ensure that your vaccinations are up-to-date.

A course of 4 injections are offered:

  • to all children at 2, 4 and 6 months of age
  • a booster dose is given at:
    • 4 years
    • 12 to 13 years
    • 50 years.

Keep a record of your vaccination history to remind you of booster doses.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • Ensure that your immunisations are kept up-to-date.
  • If you have wounds following any injury, keep them clean.
  • See your doctor if you encounter any muscle pain/stiffness or infection of the wound.
  • Seek advice from your doctor early, particularly if your vaccinations are not up-to-date.

View and download this information as a PDF factsheet (269KB).


Acknowledgements

Public Health


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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