An Overview of Tetanus

Understanding the Bacteria Also Known as Lockjaw

Doctor giving tetanus injection vaccination
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Tetanus is a bacterial infection also known as lockjaw. Tetanus bacteria live in soil, saliva, dust and manure. The bacteria are all around us, but because of effective vaccine programs, the disease is relatively rare in the United States.

Most people get tetanus when the bacteria enter their bodies through a deep cut or puncture wound, but you can also get it from surgery, burns, minor cuts, scrapes, crushing wounds, ear infections, dental infections, animal bites, abortions, pregnancy, body piercing, tattooing, injection drug use and even splinters.

Under the right conditions, tetanus bacteria can cause infection.


Tetanus causes severe tightening of the muscles, typically all over the body. It is known as “lockjaw,” because the mouth and facial muscles can become so tight that it is impossible to open the mouth or swallow. This can lead to death from suffocation.

A typical case of tetanus begins with spasms of the jaw muscles, then progresses to neck stiffness, difficulty swallowing and tightening of the abdominal muscles. Other symptoms include fever, sweating, high blood pressure and increased heart rate.


Laryngospasm, spasm of the vocal cord, is a complication that can interfere with breathing. Other complications include breaking bones or the spine from convulsions, hypertension (high blood pressure), abnormal heart rhythm and secondary infections from long hospital stays. Tetanus has a high fatality rate, causing death in 18 percent of those infected in the United States.


Any time you get a cut or wound, it should be cleaned thoroughly. If you are up to date on your immunizations and have had a tetanus booster in the past 10 years, you should be protected. If your healthcare professional feels your wound is high-risk, though, they may choose to give you another tetanus booster if it has been more than five years since your previous one.

If you actually are infected with the tetanus bacteria, there is no cure for the disease. Treatment involves hospitalization, management of the symptoms and attempts to minimize complications. Recovery can take several months.


The best treatment for tetanus is immunization. Keeping up with your booster every 10 years is the only way to truly prevent the illness. Since 1990, almost all reported cases of tetanus in the United States have been in people who are not fully immunized. Tetanus, however, is still a big problem in developing countries around the world. Any time you have a wound or cut, particularly one that is dirty or very deep, you need to seek medical attention immediately to be sure it is cleaned properly and you get any booster immunization you may need.


"Tetanus." Medline Plus 15 April 08. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 

"Tetanus: Questions and Answers." Immunization Action Coalition Feb 07. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.