Tetanus, also called “lockjaw” is a serious infection caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria. Spores of the bacteria are found in the environment including soil, dust, and animal manure. When it enters the body through broken skin, it releases a poison that affects the nervous system called a neurotoxin. Tetanus occurs worldwide but it is rare in Canada because of vaccination.

Tetanus bacteria can enter the body through broken skin including:

  • Wounds that come into contact with dirt or feces
  • Puncture wounds (wounds caused by an animal bite, a nail or needle)
  • Burns
  • Insect bites
  • Medical procedures

Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person.

The most common symptom of tetanus is cramping of a person’s neck and jaw, making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. The jaw often locks shut. This is why tetanus is sometimes called ‘lockjaw’.

Other symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Fever and sweating
  • Fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure

In severe cases, tetanus can lead to complications that requires medical care.

The time between exposure to the bacteria and becoming ill is usually three to 21 days. Sometimes tetanus symptoms appear more quickly or slowly. The interval may range from just one day to several months depending on the kind of wound.

Tetanus vaccines are safe and the most effective way to protect against tetanus infection. It is recommended for:

  • Routine vaccination of infants, children, adolescents and adults as part of Ontario’s routine immunization schedule (also available in French).
  • Booster doses are required every ten years with the first booster dose usually given in adolescence at 14 to 16 years of age.

There are four kinds of vaccines used. These vaccines help protect against tetanus and provide protection against other diseases:

  • DTaP-IPV-Hib vaccine protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, and haemophilus influenzae type b and is given at two, four, six and 18 months old.
  • Tdap-IPV vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, and polio and is given between four to six years old.
  • Tdap vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis and is given between 14 to 16 years old or as a booster dose.
  • Td vaccine protects against tetanus and diphtheria and is given as a booster once every ten years.

Vaccination with Tdap in pregnancy has been shown to be safe and effective in preventing pertussis and tetanus infection in babies. The Tdap vaccine is recommended in each pregnancy, any time after 13 weeks but preferably between 27 to 32 weeks.

Tetanus can be diagnosed based on your symptoms and recent history of cuts, scrapes, punctures and wounds. There is no lab test to confirm whether you have been infected with tetanus.

If you think you have been exposed to tetanus, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need the tetanus vaccine. With proper treatment, tetanus complications can be less severe.

  • Talk to your health care provider or Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600.
  • Call 811 to connect to a registered nurse day or night for free, secure, and confidential health advice.