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Alternative Names

Tetanus is an infection that occurs when a germ gets into a cut or wound.

What is going on in the body?
Tetanus is very unusual in countries like Australia, where use of the tetanus vaccine is widespread. The bacterium that causes tetanus, Clostridium tetani, normally lives in the soil and in animal and human intestines. Disease occurs when wounds or an infant's umbilical cord are contaminated with the bacteria. The bacteria then multiply and produce a toxin, which affects the nervous system (the brain, nerves, and spinal cord).

What are the signs and symptoms of the infection?
Symptoms begin about 1 to 2 weeks after a wound or umbilical cord has been infected. The onset occurs slowly over a few days to a week. During this time muscle spasms, which may start out in a mild fashion in one specific part of the body, will become severe and spread throughout the body.

What are the causes and risks of the infection?
  • Tetanus is caused by a toxin made by the bacteria, Clostridium tetani.
  • The risk of tetanus increases with deep puncture wounds infected by dirt or faeces.
What can be done to prevent the infection?
The tetanus vaccine can prevent this disease. This vaccine usually is given in a series of injections that are combined with the diphtheria and pertussis vaccines and the combination vaccine (DTP), is initially given in early childhood. Diphtheria is a highly infectious disease caused by bacteria that enter the body through the mouth and nose and attack the mucous membranes. Pertussis is commonly known as whooping cough. Pertussis affects the respiratory system and causes a deep cough.

Side effects due to the tetanus vaccine are very rare. Booster Injections are needed to maintain immunity, but the number depends on what previous tetanus injections the patient has received. For high-risk wounds in a person who has never been immunised or has not had the complete series of injections, tetanus immune globulin can be used to prevent disease.

How is the infection diagnosed?
Doctors usually diagnose tetanus based on the signs and symptoms listed above.

What are the treatments for the infection?
Treatment includes:
  • tetanus immune globulin
  • the antibiotics penicillin, tetracycline, or metronidazole
Author: Danielle Zerr, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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