What Is a Tetanus Shot For?

tetanus shot

Tetanus is a serious disease of the nervous system that can result in life-threatening complications. Widespread vaccination in the United States has led to a drastic decrease in tetanus cases, making it a very rare occurrence. Here’s everything you need to know about the benefits of getting a tetanus shot.

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is an infection caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria which is commonly found in soil and the manure of animals. The tetanus bacteria can enter the body through open wounds, such as:

  • Cuts and grazes
  • Tears or splits in the skin
  • Eye injuries
  • Burns
  • Animal bites
  • Body piercings and tattoos
  • Injecting contaminated drugs

Once tetanus bacteria reach the bloodstream, they produce a powerful toxin called tetanospasmin that may disrupt the normal function of the brain and nervous system, leading to severe muscle spasms. The disease affects in particular the jaw and neck muscles.

Types of tetanus

There are four different types of tetanus: 

  • Generalized tetanus
  • Localized tetanus
  • Cephalic tetanus
  • Neonatal tetanus 

Generalized tetanus is the most common type of the disease, occurring in approximately 80% of cases. Localized tetanus is a milder form that only affects the muscles near the site of infection, whereas cephalic tetanus impacts the head and neck and can cause paralysis of the facial muscles. Neonatal tetanus is a rare form that occurs in newborns who are exposed to the bacterium during birth.

Possible complications

Without treatment, there is a high risk of serious complications of tetanus infections, including:

  • Tetanic seizures
  • Broken bones due to severe muscle spasms
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Vocal cord spasms that can cause breathing difficulties and suffocation
  • Blood clot in the lung
  • Severe kidney failure

Although treatments for tetanus do exist, they are not always fully effective and the best way to protect yourself against the disease is to get vaccinated. Keep on reading to learn more about the types of tetanus shots available.

What Vaccines Prevent Tetanus?

Vaccination against tetanus is a safe and effective way to avoid contracting the illness. There are several different types of tetanus shots available:

  • Diphtheria and tetanus (DT) vaccines
  • Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccines
  • Tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccines
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines

Upper-case letters indicate that a full-strength amount of the vaccine components are used, while the lower-case “d” and “p” mean that the vaccine has lower amounts of diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis) parts. 

Babies and children younger than 7 years old are typically given DTaP or DT vaccines, whereas older children and adults receive Tdap and Td.

Side effects

Tetanus shots may cause mild side effects that usually go away on their own in a few days. Severe reactions are extremely rare. If you’ve had a serious allergic reaction to a tetanus vaccine in the past, you should avoid getting a booster shot and contact your doctor to discuss other options.

When Does One Receive a Tetanus Shot?

The DTaP vaccine consists of five shots that are given to children at the following ages:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15-18 months
  • 4-6 years

A Tdap booster is given between the ages of 11 and 18 years, and then every 10 years. 

In the following section, we take a look at the most common signs of tetanus. 

Symptoms of Tetanus

The symptoms of tetanus start at the jaw and then gradually worsen over several weeks, progressing downward on the body. The most common signs are:

  • Painful muscle spasms and stiff jaw muscles (lockjaw)
  • The tension of muscles around the lips, which may lead to a persistent grin
  • Painful spasms and rigidity in neck muscles
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Stiff abdominal and back muscles

Most people experience additional symptoms as the disease progresses, including:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Sore throat
  • Extreme sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stools

After being exposed to tetanus, it can take anywhere from 3 to 21 days before you experience any symptoms. In general, people who go through shorter incubation periods tend to have more severe symptoms.

Although there’s no cure for tetanus, there are several treatments that can help manage the symptoms. Below, we explain the most common ones.

How Is Tetanus Treated?

If you have tetanus, you will need to be admitted to a hospital intensive care unit, where you may be given different treatments, such as: 

  • Antibiotics
  • Tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG)
  • Medication to control spasms


Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, such as penicillin or metronidazole, to prevent the bacteria from multiplying and producing the neurotoxin that causes muscle spasms and stiffness.

Tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG)

If you have one of the wound types listed below, you should receive tetanus immunoglobulin as soon as possible after exposure:

  • A wound that requires surgical intervention that is delayed for over 6 hours
  • A wound that has a considerable amount of removed tissue
  • A puncture-type injury that has been in contact with manure or soil
  • Serious fractures where the bone is exposed to infection, such as compound fractures
  • Wounds in patients with systemic sepsis.

Tetanus antitoxin injections work by neutralizing the toxin in the bloodstream. They are typically accompanied by antibiotics and wound care to prevent further bacterial growth and are recommended even if you have been vaccinated.

Medication to control spasms

If you are diagnosed with tetanus, you will be prescribed medication to treat muscle spasms and stiffness:

  • Anticonvulsants (diazepam) relax the muscles to prevent spasms and work as a sedative.
  • Muscle relaxants (baclofen) suppress nerve signals from the brain to the spinal cord, resulting in reduced muscle tension.
  • Neuromuscular blocking agents (pancuronium, vecuronium) block the signals from nerves to muscle fibers.

Other treatments

  • Medications to control pain and other symptoms such as fast heartbeat and anxiety.
  • Surgery to remove as much of the damaged and infected muscle as possible or foreign material like dirt or manure from the wound.
  • Special nutrition with a high daily calorie intake due to increased muscle activity.
  • Some patients whose vocal cords or respiratory muscles are affected by tetanus may need ventilator support to help them breathe.

Most people who develop symptoms of tetanus eventually improve. However, recovery can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

When to Visit an Urgent Care

Tetanus is considered a medical emergency. It is crucial to seek immediate medical attention if you have a deep wound that may have come into contact with the bacteria. Prompt treatment can largely improve your chances of recovery.

You should visit your nearest urgent care center in the following cases:

  • You have any of the symptoms listed in the symptoms section above.
  • You have not received a tetanus shot in the past ten years.
  • You are unsure of when you last had a tetanus shot.
  • You have a puncture wound, a foreign object in your wound, a deep cut, or an animal bite.
  • Your wound is contaminated with dirt, soil, feces, rust, or saliva.

At an urgent care center, your wound will be thoroughly cleaned to prevent infection. A doctor will then assess the wound and decide whether you need further treatment and if you need to go to the hospital. Contaminated wounds may require a vaccination booster if it’s been five or more years since your last tetanus shot.

Centers Urgent care is here for all your medical needs. Our experienced providers are ready to help. Find a location closest to you here.

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