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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 bacteria 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 U.S. due to widespread immunization. Fewer than 60 cases every year occur in the United States.

Tetanus | Symptoms & Causes

How is tetanus transmitted?

Tetanus isn't contagious. It occurs in those 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 child 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.

Tetanus | Diagnosis & Treatments

How it tetanus treated?

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

How we care for tetanus

Boston Children's highly recommends giving all healthy children the Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTAP) vaccine.

Tetanus | Programs & Services