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Tetanus: Causes, symptoms and prevention

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious infection caused by bacteria getting into the body through a wound, such as a cut, bite or burn.

Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani bacterium, which is found in soil, dust and animal and human waste faeces.

Protection against tetanus is given as part of routine childhood NHS vaccinations and as boosters. Infection is now very rare with only a few UK cases a year.

A full course of 5 tetanus jabs should give immunity for life.

Tetanus boosters may be recommended before travel to parts of the world where the infection is more common.

The tetanus neurotoxin can cause muscle stiffness and spasms in the jaw muscles, called lockjaw, and problems with swallowing, called dysphagia.

Tetanus diagnosis

A doctor will diagnose tetanus based on a person's symptoms and the type of injury.

The diagnosis may be confirmed with a test where a spatula is put into the back of the throat. A person with tetanus will experience a spasm in the throat muscles and will bite on the spatula.

Do I need a tetanus jab after an accident or an injury?

Seek medical advice if tetanus infection is suspected.

If the wound is ‘tetanus-prone’, for example a puncture wound that may have become contaminated with soil, tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG) is recommended if a person is not fully vaccinated, and even if tetanus jabs are up to date as a precaution.

A person who is not fully vaccinated and shows signs of tetanus infection will be admitted to hospital for treatment, which usually includes antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and antitoxins.

A person may also need help with breathing.

Most people now survive tetanus although recovery time can be up to 4 months.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 22, 2015

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