What is tetanus?
Tetanus is a disease caused by bacteria called Clostridium tetani. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust, and manure (animal poop). These bacteria usually enter the body through breaks in the skin, like a cut, animal bite, or wound. A person with tetanus cannot spread the disease to others.
A prominent feature of tetanus is when the jaw muscles tighten, preventing a sick person from opening their mouth. This is sometimes called “lockjaw.” Other symptoms of tetanus include muscle spasms, painful muscle stiffness, trouble swallowing, seizure, headache, fever and sweating, difficulty breathing, and paralysis. Patients may also have changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Even with intensive care, 10%–20% of people with tetanus die. Most people who get sick will notice symptoms within 14 days of infection.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who is not vaccinated against tetanus can get it. Tetanus occurs throughout the world and people of all ages can get infected. Tetanus is more common in rural and agricultural regions, areas where contact with soil or manure is more likely, and areas where immunization is inadequate.
Travelers doing humanitarian aid work, such as building construction or demolition, may be more likely to get tetanus if not vaccinated.
In the United States, rare cases of tetanus happen in those who did not get all the recommended tetanus vaccinations or who don’t stay up to date on their 10-year booster shots.
What can travelers do to prevent tetanus?
Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against tetanus. Tetanus vaccines are combination vaccines. These vaccines protect against tetanus and diphtheria, and some also protect against pertussis (whooping cough). These vaccines are often called DTaP, Tdap, or Td.
Babies and Children
Babies need three shots of DTaP to build up high levels of protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Then, young children need two booster shots to maintain that protection through early childhood. CDC recommends doses at the following ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 through 18 months
- 4 through 6 years
Preteens and Teens
Preteens should get one shot of Tdap between the ages of 11 and 12 years to boost their immunity. Teens who didn’t get Tdap as a preteen should get one shot the next time they visit their healthcare provider.
Pregnant women should get Tdap during the 3rd trimester of every pregnancy. Find out more about the Tdap pregnancy recommendation.
All adults should get a tetanus shot every 10 years after getting their most recent dose as an adolescent. All adults who have never received Tdap should get one shot followed by either a Td or Tdap shot every 10 years. Vaccine providers can give Tdap to an adult who has never received it at any time, regardless of when they last got Td.
Practice good wound care to prevent infection. Don’t delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes, or any break in the skin. See a doctor if it has been more than 5 years since your last dose of tetanus vaccine. Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if washing is not possible.
If you traveled and feel sick, particularly if you have a fever, talk to a healthcare provider and tell them about your travel. Avoid contact with other people while you are sick.
If you need medical care abroad, see Getting Health Care Abroad.