Tetanus

Page last updated: 23 February 2016

Tetanus is an acute, sometimes fatal disease caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. These toxins attack the central nervous system, causing severe spasms in the neck and jaw muscles – often making it difficult for patients to open their mouths (hence the term lockjaw). The effects spread, causing breathing difficulties, painful convulsions and abnormal heart rhythms.

The tetanus bacterium is found in soil and manure, and usually enters the blood stream through open wounds. Tetanus only affects the infected person, and cannot be passed from person to person. About three in every 100 tetanus patients die, with the risk greatest among the very young and the elderly.

Causes

Tetanus is transmitted by the Clostridium tetani bacterium, which is found in soil everywhere and can enter the bloodstream through apparently trivial wounds. Most tetanus-related deaths occur in people over 70 years of age, and may be associated with apparently minor injuries.

Symptoms

Toxins (poisonous substances) produced by the bacteria affect the nervous system. Symptoms usually take between one and 21 days after infection to show. These symptoms can include: muscle spasms, trismus (lockjaw), difficulty talking, difficulty breathing, and stiffness or pain in the shoulders, back and neck.

Prevention

Tetanus is a vaccine preventable disease. Immunisation with a DTPa-containing (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis) vaccine is the best way to reduce the risk of tetanus in children. Doses of vaccine are given at two, four and six months of age, with booster doses at 18 months, four years and 10-15 years (dTpa). The tetanus vaccine is free under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. To receive tetanus immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that although the vaccine is provided at no cost, a consultation fee may apply.

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