What you may not know about tetanus

Tetanus is the only vaccine-preventable disease that is infectious but not contagious. It is a bacterial infection caused by wound contamination that affects the nervous system, leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly the jaw and neck muscles.

Tetanus has been recognized for centuries as an environmentally acquired infectious but preventable disease that affects the body’s muscles and nerves due to contamination of wounds by the bacteria, Clostridium tetani or the spores they produce that live in the soil and animal feces. This causative bacterium is an organism capable of living inside the soil in form of spores for many years. Infection follows when the spores become activated and develop into gram-positive bacteria that multiply and produce a very powerful toxin that affects the muscles. The toxin can travel throughout the body via the bloodstream and lymph system. As it circulates more widely, the toxin interferes with the normal activity of nerves throughout the body, leading to generalized muscle spasms. Spasms can be so forceful that they tear muscles or even cause spine fractures.

Tetanus, especially the neonatal form, remains a significant public health problem in developing countries. Neonatal tetanus happens in newborns who are delivered in unsanitary conditions, especially if the umbilical cord stump becomes contaminated.  Tetanus is an international health problem that occurs almost exclusively in persons unvaccinated or inadequately immunized. Tetanus is a worldwide infection that is more common in hot and damp climates where there are manure-treated soils rich in organic matter.

The highest mortality rates  from tetanus are in unvaccinated people, people over 60 years of age and newborns. Neonatal tetanus is common in many developing countries and is responsible for about 215,000 neonatal deaths annually. The incidence of tetanus is much higher in less developed countries.  Generally, many developing countries lack effective prevention and vaccination programs against tetanus, so the disease and death from the disease are much more common there. Globally around a million cases of tetanus occur each year and causes about half that number of deaths.

It’s important you partner in tetanus control and management. Know and promptly report signs and symptoms of tetanus for easier treatment. This is why this publication supports the timely prevention of tetanus through proper and timely awareness campaign.


Tetanus is a serious medical condition characterized by a prolonged contraction of skeletal muscle fibers. It is a bacterial infection caused by wound contamination that affects the nervous system, leading to forceful and painful muscle contractions, particularly the jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus is commonly known as “lockjaw.” It can interfere with the ability to breathe and ultimately, cause death. Tetanus is a dangerous nerve ailment caused by the toxin of a common bacterium, Clostridium tetani that usually enter the body through deep cut from such as knife or nail. The bacterial spores that produce the poisonous microbial toxin can remain infectious for more than 40 years in the soil. They also exist in environments as diverse as animal excreta, house dust and the human colon. If the spores enter a wound that penetrated the skin and extended deeper than where oxygen can reach, they germinate and produce toxin that enter the bloodstream, circulating to the nerves where they cause infections. After approximately 8 days (ranging from 3- 21 days), the toxin begins to short-circuit nerve signals and block the relaxation of muscles. This results in sustained muscle contractions, notably the lockjaw for which tetanus is nicknamed, where the victim cannot open his mouth or swallow.


There are four possible types of tetanus infection. The most common is generalized tetanus which can affect all skeletal muscles. The local tetanus manifests as muscle spasms at or near the bacteria- infected wound. The Cephalic tetanus primarily affects one or several muscles in the face in one to two days following a head injury or ear infection and may cause “lockjaw”. The neonatal tetanus which is rare in developed countries is similar to generalized tetanus except that it affects babies (neonates) of less than 1 month old.


Tetanus infection has some complications. The possible complications are:

  • Airway obstruction
  • Heart failure
  • Fractures due to severity of spasms
  • Lasting brain damage ( especially in infants) ranging from minor mental deficits to cerebral palsy due to lack of oxygen that is common during spasms
  • Permanent disability due to prolonged immobility sequel to the use of powerful sedatives to control muscle spasms
  • Death due to respiratory failure and pneumonia.



Tetanus spores are found throughout the environment, especially in the soil, dust and animal waste. The spores are also widely distributed in the intestines and feces of many animals such as horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs and chickens. In agricultural areas, a significant number of human adults may harbour the organism. The spores can also be found on skin surfaces and in contaminated heroin.



Heroin users, particularly those that inject the drug are at high risk for tetanus infection.   The potential entry posts for the bacteria into the human body are cuts or deep puncture wounds caused by such as rusty nails, splinters, insect bites, burns or intravenous injections. However, it should be noted that injuries that involve dead skin such as burns, frostbite, gangrene or bruises are more likely to cause tetanus. Also wounds contaminated with soil, saliva or feces, especially if not properly cleaned and disinfected; and skin punctures such as injection, self-performed tattooing or body piercing from unsterilized needles and instruments increase risk of tetanus infection. Other tetanus-prone injuries include surgery, crush wound, abscesses, childbirth and wounds with devitalized (dead) tissue (crush injuries) or foreign bodies (debris in them) are at most risk of developing tetanus. Tetanus may develop in people who are not immunized against it or in people who have failed to maintain adequate immunity with active booster doses of vaccine.


There are currently no blood tests for diagnosing tetanus; and there is no cure for tetanus infection. Palliative treatment consists of wound care, medications to ease symptoms, supportive care and management of complications until the effects of the tetanus toxin resolve. Without treatment, tetanus can be very fatal. Therefore the best approach to tetanus infection is prevention.


Symptoms and signs of tetanus may appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after tetanus bacteria have entered the body through a deep broken skin.  Common signs and symptoms of tetanus infection are painful progressive spasms of the chest, neck, back, upper arms, thighs, bottom and abdominal muscles. Sudden stiffness in jaw (lockjaw), abdominal and neck muscles; difficulty in swallowing, painful body spasms lasting for several minutes (typically triggered by such as a draft, loud noise, physical touch or light), fever and elevated blood pressure are common.  There may be presentations of episodic rapid heart rate, breathing problems that can cause suffocation to death, fractures, muscle tears and drooling. Other signs and symptoms of tetanus infection include hand or foot spasms, excessive sweating, irritability and poor sucking ability or difficulty in swallowing especially in neonates. Equally observed are uncontrolled urination or defecation, weakness and facial muscle spasms.


People should avoid delay in calling or reporting to health care providers if they have open wound caused by dirty or dusty object that has been outdoors or in contact with soil. Injuries caused by rusty and dirty nails and inadequate vaccination (failure to receive timely booster shots) against tetanus should be disallowed. Other things to avoid include penetrating injury that can result in tetanus spores being introduced to the wound site, unprotected contact with foreign body such as a nail or splinter and swelling around the injury site. We must not allow splinters’ puncture wounds, body piercings and tattoos. It is important to avoid animal bites, bacterial infection of foot ulcers and bacterial infection of umbilical stumps in newborns (especially babies of inadequately immunized mothers).


Tetanus infection can be prevented by proper vaccination and by post-exposure prophylaxis. The tetanus vaccine can prevent tetanus among children, adolescents and adults but its protection does not last forever. If you are pregnant, discuss in advance your vaccination record with your obstetrician before your due date and follow the routine vaccination (immunization) schedule against tetanus so as to produce the essential antibodies that mothers pass to their unborn babies. Comply strictly with the sanitary cord-care techniques to check newborn tetanus and be sure you and your children do not miss any vaccination appointments. Visit health care providers if you have never been vaccinated against tetanus as an adult or child; if your children have not been vaccinated or if you are unsure of your tetanus vaccination status especially if a deep or dirty wound is sustained.

Any skin wound, especially a deep puncture that may be contaminated with feces, manure, soil or saliva should be properly cleaned and dressed quickly to prevent the harbouring and growth of tetanus spores. Remember that cleaning and dressing all wounds is not a substitute for vaccination against tetanus infection. After cleaning the wound, apply a thin layer of an antibiotic cream or ointment such as the multi-ingredient antibiotics Neosporin and Polysporin. These antibiotics do not make the wound heal faster, but they can prevent bacterial growth and infection; and help the wound to heal more efficiently. Wounds thoroughly cleaned with antiseptic soap and running water can be covered with bandages to help keep the wound clean and free from harmful bacteria out until a scab forms; and change the dressing when necessary to prevent infection. Also leave uncleaned wounds open to avoid trapping tetanus bacteria into the wound with a bandage.

Maintain proper airway and nutrition (at least 150 g of protein daily) so as to balance the metabolic strain caused by increased muscle activity. Take adequate bed rest in a conducive environment with dim light, reduced noise and ambient temperature.

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