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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read

Tetanus occurs when bacteria from soil or animal manure enter an open wound. It is a rare but serious and life-threatening condition. There are not many cases of tetanus due to a very successful childhood vaccination programme. 

When am I at risk of tetanus?

If you have an open wound there is a risk that bacteria can enter your body and cause tetanus. For example superficial cuts and grazes, burns, animal bites or piercings, and tattoos after an injury or accident. It is not contagious and cannot spread from one person to the next.

What are the symptoms?

Tetanus can affect the nerves of the body. This can lead to stiffness in your jaw, making it hard to open your mouth, spasms in your muscles which can affect the muscles allowing you to swallow or breathe, it can cause rapid breathing, sweating, and fevers too. 

After you have been infected with tetanus, symptoms usually start around 10 days later. Immediate treatment is important, otherwise, your symptoms can continue to worsen. 

How is it managed?

If you are concerned about tetanus it is best to attend your local urgent care centre, your doctor can also help. The nurse or doctor will review your wound and any symptoms to assess the risk of tetanus occurring. This is more likely to happen if there is a deep wound, exposed to dirt, soil, manure or if you have not been fully vaccinated for tetanus.

If you are not sure if you have been fully vaccinated, it is still important to attend and let the healthcare practitioner assess you. They will clean your wound thoroughly and give you an injection against tetanus. If there is a risk or sign of infection, you may also be given some antibiotics.   If you develop any severe signs or symptoms of tetanus, it is important to call for an ambulance and attend your nearest emergency department straight away. There you will likely be admitted to the intensive care unit and be given multiple treatments to make you better. Recovery from tetanus can take several months.

When should I get a tetanus jab?

The NHS childhood vaccination programme includes five injections of the tetanus vaccine. The first three doses are given at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of life. A booster is given at 3 years and 4 months and the final dose is given at 14 years old. Five total injections are thought to be effective enough to provide lifelong protection against tetanus. Anyone can complete their vaccination schedule if they did not complete it as a child, and each dose can be given at least 1 month apart if required.

It is really important when traveling abroad to ensure that you are fully vaccinated against tetanus. Tetanus is present all over and it would be wise to reduce your risk of contracting this illness while away from your home country. Your doctor or a travel clinic will be able to help you administer the full schedule. If you haven't had a vaccine for more than 10 years, you will likely be offered another booster to protect you for your upcoming trip. 

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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