Tetanus is an infection triggered by a bacteria called clostridium tetani. It causes muscle spasms and can cause damage to the central nervous system.

  1. Symptoms include lockjaw and a high temperature
  2. Caused by bacteria entering cuts and breaks in the skin
  3. Treated with an injection and antibiotics

Due to routine vaccinations, Tetanus is extremely rare. However, if you haven’t been vaccinated and are worried about signs of an infection, you should speak to a doctor. Our online video consultation service can put you in touch with a GP at a time that’s convenient for you.

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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacterial infection. It is contracted when Clostridium tetani (or C. tetani), a bacteria commonly found in soil, enters the body through a cut or an open wound. Most people are immune to it in the UK, as routine vaccination was introduced in 1961. The condition does still occur, but very rarely; according to the NHS, there were just four cases of the condition in 2016.

What symptoms can tetanus cause?

Tetanus can cause symptoms such as stiffness in the jaw, fever and an increased heartbeat. People with these indicators will need to be treated in hospital. 

The condition is the only disease which can’t be transmitted from one person to another for which there is a vaccine. The spores of C. tetani grow in the tissue when they are exposed to oxygen. The vaccine, Tetanus toxoid, produces sufficient antibodies to stop the infection from developing.

The tetanus toxin is potent, and it’s transported in the bloodstream. It can have an effect on several areas within the nervous system, including the brain, the spinal cord and the sympathetic nervous system. Muscle spasms are triggered by the toxin blocking neurotransmitters in the nervous system. 

Symptoms usually develop after approximately 7 days, but they can surface sooner than this, or later (anywhere between one day and a month having contracted the infection).

If someone develops tetanus and it isn’t treated, it can be serious and potentially life-threatening. Treatment is administered in hospital in the form of a vaccine, which’s issued as an injection, along with antibiotics. Someone with muscle spasms may also be given treatment to help reduce these.

Who gets tetanus?

Tetanus routine immunisation was introduced in the UK in 1961, and since then there’s been a huge decline in the incidence rate. Between 2001-2014, there were just 96 cases of tetanus in the UK, making the incidence rate 0.13 per million. 

It does however remain a significant health problem in other parts of the world, where immunisation is less prevalent and birth practices less sanitary.  

If you have signs of an infection in a cut or are otherwise concerned, you should seek medical advice. People who are unable to get to their GP can speak to a doctor online through our secure video service. Book a slot at a time convenient for you.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

What causes tetanus?

The spores of the clostridium tetani bacteria are what causes tetanus. These spores are found in soil and animal faeces, and they can enter the body through an open wound or cut. They are commonly found in soil which has been manured, and are resistant to light and heat. Once they have entered the body, the bacteria can develop into a powerful toxin called tetanospasmin, which is what causes the symptoms of tetanus.

These may include muscle spasms, lockjaw, fever and an irregular heartbeat. 

How is tetanus diagnosed?

In most cases, a doctor will conduct a physical examination to look for symptoms of tetanus, and assess if a wound could be indicative of the condition.

Lockjaw is the most prominent symptom of tetanus. Other notable signs are muscle spasms, respiratory distress and difficulty swallowing. Spasms can last for several minutes, and are usually triggered by external factors such as light, noise and physical contact. These spasms often lead to the back being arched, the legs extended, and the fists clenched.

Tetanus is now incredibly rare since widespread vaccination was brought into practice in the UK. There were only four recorded cases in 2016 and it’s unlikely that you’ll develop the condition, provided you’ve been vaccinated. If you notice any of the symptoms described, you should see a doctor.

In the event that your muscles become very stiff, or you notice pronounced spasms, you should call 999 or go to a hospital immediately.

Will I need tests?

If a clinician suspects you have tetanus and you haven’t been vaccinated, they’ll normally give you a shot of tetanus immunoglobulin. This acts as both a treatment and a vaccine. 

However, a doctor may decide to perform some tests to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other possibilities. The toxin from tetanus can be found in blood tests, so these may be used to detect the condition.  

How is tetanus managed?

It’s important to clean the wound. A doctor can do this for you. If you haven’t been vaccinated against tetanus, you will receive an injection of tetanus immunoglobulin, which contains antibodies that act against the toxin. This is a short-term treatment that will provide immediate immunisation from the bacteria. If you haven’t been vaccinated before, you’ll likely be given a further dose when the infection has cleared.

If someone develops tetanus symptoms, admission to a hospital intensive care unit may be necessary. Antibiotics will be administered to help clear the infection, and other treatment may be given to aid with muscle spasming.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is tetanus treated?

If there are no symptoms, the condition can be treated by cleaning the suspected wound, and administering an injection of tetanus immunoglobulin. 

Tetanus requires hospitalisation if symptoms have started to occur, where treatments vary depending on the severity of the infection. It’s likely someone will still be given the immunoglobulin injection, but they may also need to be given antibiotics to tackle the infection.

How long will it take for me to recover?

It depends on whether any symptoms are present, and how severe these are. Someone who has had to spend time in an intensive care unit in hospital due to tetanus may need a period of weeks or months to fully recover.

Can I consult a doctor about tetanus online?

Tetanus is a very serious condition that requires urgent medical attention in light of symptoms appearing. However, if you are unsure about a wound that you have recently acquired or think you may have an infection, you can speak to one of our UK doctors online, who can provide advice on what to do next. Click below to book an appointment at a suitable time for you.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020

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