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Disease

Tetanus

Page last updated on 07 April 2022

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. 

The bacteria forms spores (a hardy form of the bacteria) that can survive and are found within most places in the environment, including soil, dust and manure. The spores develop into bacteria when they enter the body. These bacteria produce toxins that affect the nervous system, subsequently causing muscle spasms, breathing problems and some complications can be fatal.

In most cases, symptoms will occur between 3 days and 3 weeks after infection, with the most common onset after 10 days. However, this can range from 1 day to several months.. Tetanus cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Tetanus is uncommon in Australia because of the widespread use of the tetanus vaccine. Anyone who hasn't been immunised against tetanus is at risk. 

Key disease information

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. The bacteria are found most commonly in soil, dust and manure and can enter the body through breaks in the skin (usually through cuts or puncture wounds caused by contaminated objects).

How do you get tetanus?

Tetanus is uncommon in Australia because of the widespread use of the tetanus vaccine. Anyone who hasn't been immunised against tetanus is at risk.

The bacteria are found mostly in the environment (soil, dust and manure) and get in to the body through breaks in the skin. The most common way spores get in to the body is through injuries from contaminated objects. Certain types of skin breaks are more likely to get infected with tetanus bacteria, such as:

  • wounds contaminated with dirt, faeces or saliva
  • wounds caused by an object puncturing the skin e.g. nails, needles
  • burns
  • crush injuries
  • injuries with dead tissue.
What are the symptoms of tetanus?

Early signs of tetanus include: 

  • Muscle spasms or tightness that begin in the jaw and neck 
  • Inability to open the mouth (lockjaw) swallowing problems
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Painful convulsions (fits)
  • Abnormal heart rhythms.

Occasionally a person may present with a fever and sometimes develop abnormal heart rhythms. Further complications include:

  • Pneumonia (infection of the lungs)
  • Broken bones from the muscle spasms
  • Respiratory failure
  • Cardiac arrest.
     
How can tetanus be prevented?

Tetanus is a vaccine preventable disease. Tetanus vaccine is provided free to:

  • Infants and children, as part of the National Immunisation Program at 2, 4, 6, 18 months and 4 years of age
     
  • Adolescents as part of the school immunisation program at 12–13 years of age (the age at which you receive the vaccine varies by state and territory)

Tetanus vaccination is not funded, but recommended for:

  • Adults who are 50 years old and above and haven’t had a tetanus booster in the last 10 years
  • Travellers going to areas where health services are difficult to access or [del] high-risk areas where there is a high chance of acquiring a tetanus-prone wound
  • Individuals who received a primary course of 3 doses as adults, at 10 and 20 years after the primary course
I stepped on a rusty nail, do I need a tetanus shot?

Anyone who has a wound that could be infected with tetanus bacteria should seek medical advice regarding whether they need a tetanus booster if they have not had one in the past 5 years.

Is tetanus deadly?

Yes, tetanus can be deadly, even with prompt medical attention. About one in 10 people who contract tetanus will die. The extremely serious and potentially lethal complications of tetanus include:

  • suffocation
  • lung failure
  • pneumonia (infection of the lungs)
  • hypertension (high blood pressure), hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • heart attack.

 

Always seek medical advice for dirty wounds or if the skin has been penetrated or punctured with an object where contamination is a possibility. The best way to reduce the risk of tetanus is to keep up to date with your vaccinations.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. Tetanus. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/tetanus (accessed 08 March 2022).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus – causes and transmission. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/tetanus/about/causes-transmission.html (accessed 08 March 2022).
  3. Victoria State Government – Better Health Channel. Tetanus. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/tetanus (accessed 08 March 2022).
  4. New South Wales Government Health. Tetanus Fact Sheet. Available at: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/tetanus.aspx (accessed 08 March 2022).
  5. Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Tetanus in Australia. Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/f877a2da-23e3-4516-948f-df05ca7ceb43/aihw-phe-236_Tetanus.pdf.aspx#:~:text=Tetanus%20is%20a%20nationally%20notifiable,notifications%20of%20tetanus%20were%20reported. (accessed 08 March 2022).
  6. Australian Government, Department of Health. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/when-to-get-vaccinated/national-immunisation-program-schedule (accessed 08 March 2022).

MAT-AU-2200366  Date of preparation March 2022

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