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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 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 program.

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. 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, and 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 go to your local urgent care center, or your doctor can also help. The nurse or doctor will examine 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, or 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 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 or go to your nearest emergency department immediately. You will likely be admitted to the intensive care unit and given multiple treatments to improve. Recovery from tetanus can take several months.

When should I get a tetanus shot?

The US childhood vaccination program includes five injections of the tetanus vaccine, usually in combination with diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) - DTaP. The first three doses are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of life. A booster is given at 15-18 months, and the final dose is given at 4-6 years old. Pre-teens are given another booster at 11-12 years of age. Anyone could complete their vaccination schedule if they did not complete it as a child. Boosters are recommended every 10 years thereafter.

It is very important when traveling abroad to ensure that you are fully vaccinated against tetanus. Tetanus is present worldwide, and it would be wise to reduce your risk of contracting this illness while away from your home country. Your doctor or a clinic will be able to 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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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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