CHOC Children's
INFECTIOUS DISEASES :: Infectious Diseases

Tetanus

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is an acute, sometimes fatal, disease of the central nervous system, caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium, which usually enters the body through an open wound. The tetanus bacterium live in soil and manure, but also can be found in the human intestine and other places.

  • Tetanus occurs more often in warmer climates or during the warmer months.
  • Tetanus is very uncommon in the US due to widespread immunization. Fewer than 50 cases every year occur in the US.

How is tetanus transmitted?

Tetanus is not a contagious illness. It occurs in individuals who have had a skin or deep tissue wound or puncture. It is also seen in the umbilical stump of infants in underdeveloped countries. This occurs in places where immunization to tetanus is not widespread and women may not know proper care of the stump after the baby is born. After being exposed to tetanus, it may take between two days to two months to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take between five days to two weeks to develop.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The following are the most common symptoms of tetanus. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • stiffness of jaw (also called lockjaw)
  • stiffness of abdominal and back muscles
  • contraction of facial muscles
  • fast pulse
  • fever
  • sweating
  • painful muscle spasms near the wound area (if these affect the larynx or chest wall, they may cause asphyxiation)
  • difficulty swallowing

The symptoms of tetanus may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Symptoms usually confirm the diagnosis of tetanus.

Treatment for tetanus:

Specific treatment for tetanus will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment for tetanus may include:

  • medications (to control spasms)
  • thorough cleaning of the wound
  • a course of tetanus antitoxin injections
  • a tracheostomy (a breathing tube inserted surgically in the windpipe) in severe cases (with respiratory problems)

Prevention of tetanus:

A DTaP vaccine that includes tetanus is routinely given in the US during childhood (the other two diseases included are diphtheria and pertussis). Booster immunization shots are needed every 10 years.

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It is important to remember the health information found on this website is for reference only not intended to replace the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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