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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious but rare infection. It is caused by the tetanus bacteria (Clostridium tetanientering a break in the skin. For instance, following a scratch, cut or burn.

In the UK, the tetanus vaccination is part of the NHS Childhood Vaccination Programme. Most people are protected from tetanus after finishing the course of 5 injections.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

Tetanus symptoms usually start around 10 days after infection. But they can start within a few days or take weeks to appear. Once inside the body, the tetanus bacteria multiplies and releases a toxin, which affects nerves.

Symptoms include:
– Painful contractions of face and neck muscles causing facial spasms (trismus or lockjaw).
– Muscle spasms local to the site of infection or generalised spasms.
– Severe symptoms include struggling to swallow or breath.

Seek emergency medical treatment if you think you have tetanus.

Do I need a tetanus jab?

Most people have longterm immunity from tetanus if they have completed the 5 dose vaccination course at appropriate times. 

If you have not had the recommended 5 doses of vaccine or are unsure, you should check with your family doctor. 

Some wounds are more at risk than others. Tetanus prone wounds include:
– animal bites or scratches
– broken bones with an overlying wound
– puncture injuries whilst outside e.g. rose thorn, rusty nail
– splinters e.g. wood splinter

These wounds become even higher risk if they are heavily contaminated with soil or manure. 

You should seek urgent medical attention if you have a wound and are unsure about your vaccination record or have a tetanus prone wound.

The health care professional will assess your risk. They might be able to reassure you that no action is needed, or that you need a reinforcing dose of vaccine or even immunoglobulin, which helps to neutralise the toxin.


More info

Author: Matthew D Gardiner
Review: Matthew D. Gardiner
Created: 15th July 2020
Next review: 14th July 2020

As a service to our readers, My Injured Hand provides information on conditions. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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