• Infectious Diseases A-Z: Understanding tetanus

3D illustration of Clostridium bacteria which causes tetanus, botulism, gas gangrene and wound infectionTetanus is a serious infection that can be life-threatening and easily prevented with vaccination. It is caused by a toxin produced by spores of the bacteria, Clostridium tetani. These bacteria live in the environment, including in soil, dust and animal feces. "Any time someone gets a wound that may become contaminated with soil or environmental contents, they're at risk for developing tetanus," says Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic.

"Once the bacteria get into the wound, the bacteria can produce a toxin that affects the abilities of the muscles to work. This can cause stiffening of the muscles and rigidity of the muscles, which is a very serious condition, especially once it affects the muscles of breathing — in which case, people can die."

Watch: Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse explains tetanus.

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There is no cure for tetanus, and treatment consists of wound care, easing symptoms and supportive care. “We manage patients with tetanus with supportive therapy to give time for that toxin to work its way out of the system," Dr. Rajapakse says. "Many of these patients end up needing to be in an intensive care unit. They need to have breathing tubes inserted. They need a lot of kind of supportive management until the toxin goes away on its own. There is a high mortality or death rate from this infection, as well.”

Tetanus will never be eradicated because it is present in the soil and the environment, but the good news is tetanus can be prevented easily with vaccination. The vaccine is given as part of the DTaP vaccination series, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Older children and adults are recommended to get a tetanus vaccine booster every 10 years to make sure a level of immunity or protection is maintained against the tetanus toxin.

Tetanus is not contagious and cannot be spread from person-to-person.

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