Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is a serious disease. It is caused by bacteria that live mainly in dirt, dust and soil. These bacteria are also found in human and animal feces and sometimes in saliva. The bacteria enter the body through a graze, a scrape or a small wound caused, for example, by a dirty needle or rusty nail. Once in the body, the bacteria produce a poison that attacks the nerves that control muscle activity.
The symptoms of tetanus come on gradually. In most cases, they appear within 2 weeks of becoming infected.
The most common symptoms are sudden spasms and stiffness in the muscles of the neck and then the face.
Other symptoms include:
- difficulty swallowing;
- seizures (the body stiffens and the muscles contract, causing involuntary jerky movements);
- fever and sweating;
- high blood pressure (rise in blood pressure above normal values);
- rapid heart rate.
When to Consult
Immediate emergency room consultation
You must go to the emergency room immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:
- you have had difficulty breathing for some time or your difficulty breathing suddenly gets worse;
- your lips are blue;
- you have difficulty moving;
- you are having seizures (your body stiffens and your muscles contract, causing involuntary jerky movements).
If you need immediate assistance to get to the emergency room, call 911.
You must see a doctor on the same day if you have any of the following symptoms:
- you have painful muscle spasms, especially in the face;
- you have difficulty breathing;
- your back is arched (curved backwards).
Take your child to a doctor quickly if he/she develops symptoms of tetanus and has a fever, seems very ill, is lacking energy or does not want to play.
Tetanus can be treated. It requires a stay in intensive care and continuous monitoring.
Tetanus treatment involves:
- antibiotics and immunoglobulins to treat the infection;
- medications to control muscle spasms;
- wound care;
If the infection is severe, the person may need a machine to help them breathe artificially.
Tetanus must be treated immediately. If left untreated, it can cause serious complications. The stiffness can spread to the muscles in the chest region and cause breathing difficulties.
Possible complications of tetanus are:
- broken bones caused by muscle spasms;
- nerve and brain damage in infants and children.
Tetanus is fatal in 10 to 20% of cases.
The bacteria that cause tetanus can live for years in:
- human or animal feces or saliva.
You cannot get tetanus just from touching an infected object. There has to be a small wound, scrape or graze in your skin for the bacteria to get into the body. Therefore, an ordinary activity such as gardening can be a risk for a person who has a cut or wound, since they are exposed to bacteria that might be in the soil.
Tetanus is not spread from person to person.
Protection and Prevention
Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against tetanus.
Since tetanus vaccination is included on the recommended immunization schedule, tetanus is very rare in Canada. In Québec, under the Québec Immunization Program:
- children are given their first dose of the tetanus vaccine at 2 months of age;
- adults are given a tetanus booster shot every 10 years.
The tetanus vaccine is part of a combined vaccine that protects against several diseases. The composition of the vaccine varies depending on the person’s age. To find out which vaccine you should get, consult the recommended immunization schedule.
How to get vaccinated
Under the Québec Immunization Program, everyone can get vaccinated against tetanus for free.
Consult the Québec Immunization Program page to find out the procedure for getting vaccinated.
People at Risk
Anyone who is not protected against tetanus can become infected. In addition, a person who has had the disease is not protected against tetanus. Tetanus occurs worldwide and can affect people of any age.
The most vulnerable people are infants and older adults. Adults are often unaware that their protection against tetanus may have decreased if they have not had the booster shots recommended on the immunization schedule.
Last update: January 28, 2019