Tetanus is a serious disease caused by bacteria infecting a wound. It is also known as lockjaw, as tetanus causes muscle stiffness, particularly in your face and neck. Tetanus symptoms can be severe, including muscle spasms that make it difficult to breath and swallow. There is a worldwide tetanus risk, and it is therefore recommended that you check if you need the vaccine.

Risk areas
Reported cases
12,476 globally (2017)
People at highest risk
Unvaccinated, elderly and drug users

01. Causes of tetanus

Tetanus, or lockjaw, is caused by bacteria that can survive for a long time outside the body, and are commonly found in soil and the manure of animals such as horses and cows.

You can get tetanus if bacteria enters the body through a wound, so it is recommended that you check if you need the vaccine, as cuts and scrapes are unavoidable in life.

The tetanus bacteria can release a poison through your blood, and can make you very unwell.

Tetanus can infect your body through:

  • cuts and scrapes

  • tears or splits in the skin

  • burns

  • animal bites

  • body piercings, tattoos and injections

  • eye injuries

  • contaminated drugs

People often do not see any signs of tetanus until it has been in the body for many days. Because of this, it is best to get checked out if you have a wound that has a higher risk of being infected.

Wounds with a high risk for tetanus are:

  • deep puncture wounds

  • wounds that have had contact with soil or manure

  • wounds with something inside, such as dirt or gravel

  • bone fractures where the skin is broken

  • wounds or burns in patients who have blood infections

Tetanus is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person.

02. Risk areas

Tetanus is rare in resource-rich countries, including the UK, because most people get vaccinated as children, but the risk of tetanus is still high in other parts of the world.

Travellers are most at risk of tetanus when visiting poorer communities, where very few people get vaccinated.

However, outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world, and the tetanus risk can change.

Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of tetanus through the search bar below.

Remember that no country is free of tetanus, as the bacteria lives in soil, and can survive outside the body for a long time.

03. Symptoms of tetanus

Tetanus symptoms usually develop four to 21 days after infection. This is known as the tetanus incubation period. On average, signs of tetanus usually start after ten days.

The main tetanus symptoms include:

  • stiffness in your jaw muscles (lockjaw)

  • difficulty opening your mouth

  • painful muscle spasms

  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

  • high temperature

  • sweating

  • rapid heartbeat

04. Diagnosis of tetanus

Tetanus is diagnosed based on the symptoms you are experiencing and your health history.

The doctor can also take some samples, that will be tested at the laboratory, to confirm that you have tetanus, if necessary.

It is important to get diagnosed as soon as possible, so tetanus treatment can be started quickly.

05. Treatment of tetanus

Tetanus is curable using a medication that kills the tetanus bacteria, called tetanus immunoglobulin, but it is not effective for everyone.

If you seek tetanus treatment quickly, you can be given an injection that provides immediate, short-term protection from the disease.

A doctor will clean your wounds and remove any dead or infected skin.

When you return home, you will need to follow your doctor’s instructions to keep the wound clean. This usually includes keeping it dry, changing dressings and using antibiotic creams.

If tetanus causes serious symptoms before you are able to see a doctor, you may require a stay in hospital. You will be given different tetanus treatments, such as tetanus immunoglobulin, antibiotics, and medication to relieve muscle stiffness and spasms.

It is important to seek tetanus treatment as soon as possible if you suspect you have been infected. Left untreated, the symptoms can get worse within hours or days.

Most people who develop tetanus symptoms recover, but it can take several weeks or months.

06. Prevention of tetanus

Tetanus prevention includes many different things, including a vaccine.

If you need to get the vaccine for tetanus, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure if the vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses, who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective tetanus prevention, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need the vaccine

  • learn the symptoms and signs of tetanus

  • see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect tetanus

  • look after wounds according to your doctors advice

Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019