Skip to main content

What is tetanus?

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a serious infection caused by bacteria that live in soil, dust and manure. People usually get tetanus through broken skin, usually from a cut or puncture by a contaminated object.

Tetanus affects the nervous system and is an emergency that requires immediate medical care. But, you can prevent it by getting a tetanus vaccine every 10 years.


Tetanus affects the nerves that control your muscles. Some common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Jaw cramping
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Muscle spasms, often in the neck, chest, stomach and back
  • Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
  • Fever and sweating
  • High blood pressure and rapid heartbeat

How is it diagnosed?

Your physician can often make a diagnosis of tetanus by performing a physical exam to look for these symptoms. He or she will also ask you about your immunization history for tetanus. Your symptoms may indicate tetanus if:

  • You have never had a tetanus vaccination
  • It has been more than 10 years since your last vaccination

Unlike many infectious diseases, tetanus is not usually diagnosed with lab tests. Your physician may order lab tests to rule out other infections such as bacterial meningitis or rabies.

Go to top