Tetanus is an illness caused by infection with the bacterium Clostridium tetani. These bacteria live in soil. When they get into the human body, they make a toxin that damages the nervous system.
Symptoms of tetanus start to appear between 5 and 15 days after the bacteria get into the body. First there are mild spasms and then rigidity of the muscles of the jaw (lockjaw), neck, and face, along with difficulty swallowing or speaking. Soon after, the chest, back, and abdominal muscles become rigid. This can interfere with breathing and threaten life, especially in children and older adults. Powerful and painful seizures then occur.
People with tetanus must be hospitalized. Treatment begins with an injection to neutralize the tetanus toxin. Intravenous penicillin is used to fight the infection. Removal of infected tissue may also be necessary. Muscle relaxants (to reduce spasms) and sedation may be needed. Some people with tetanus must be put on a ventilator to help them breathe.
A vaccine against tetanus is part of the DTaP vaccination for children under age 7 and the Tdap vaccination for adolescents and adults. Because immunity to tetanus wears off over time, everyone should get a booster shot for tetanus every 10 years.