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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, animal saliva, and other places:

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

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 three to 21 days to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take between three 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
  • Convulsions
  • 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 doctor for a diagnosis.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Symptoms usually confirm the diagnosis of tetanus.

What is the treatment for tetanus?

Specific treatment for tetanus will be determined by your child's doctor 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 (or to reduce the risk of tetanus after an injury) may include:

  • 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
  • Medications to control spasms

How is tetanus prevented?

The CDC recommends that children need five DTaP shots. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. Between 15 and 18 months of age, the fourth shot is given, and a fifth shot when a child enters school at four to six years of age. At regular check-ups for 11- or 12- year olds, a preteen should get a dose of Tdap. The Tdap booster also contains tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If an adult did not get a Tdap as a preteen or teen, then he should get a dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. Adults should then get a Td booster every ten years, but it can be given before the ten-year mark. Always consult your doctor for advice.

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