Tetanus

Key disease facts

Tetanus is an infection of the nervous system that is always serious and often fatal. The bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, are all around us (for example in soil), and they enter the body through scratches, burns and cuts.

At least 1 in 10 of those who develop tetanus die, even in countries like the UK where there is good access to intensive care. In countries without good medical care, up to 9 in 10 of those who develop tetanus will die. Neonatal tetanus is an important cause of death in many countries in Asia and Africa. It is caused by infection of the baby's umbilical stump. The World Health Organization (WHO) has made it a priority to eliminate neonatal tetanus worldwide, and the number of cases is falling every year.

Tetanus is not passed from person to person. This means that it cannot be prevented by herd immunity. Catching tetanus does not make you immune; even those who catch tetanus and survive can get the disease again.

Before World War 2, around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. The vaccine was introduced in 1961, and by the 1970s tetanus was hardly seen in children in the UK. There are now only a handful of cases each year in the UK, mostly in unvaccinated older people, or sometimes linked to the use of contaminated injected drugs. However, even though the number of cases is very low, there have still been 11 reported deaths from tetanus in the last 20 years in the UK.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • lockjaw (a spasm of the jaw muscles which makes the mouth stay tightly closed)
  • rigid neck muscles
  • painful spasms which can tear muscles, or even cause fractures of the spine
  • breathing problems which can become serious

How is it passed on?

Tetanus is not passed from person to person. It is caused by a type of bacteria which is very common in the environment, including in soil. The bacteria enter the body through open cuts and burns, including scratches which may go unnoticed.

What protection is available?

Because the infection comes from the environment, rather than being passed from person to person, there is no herd immunity for tetanus - every person needs to be individually protected.

In the UK, babies and children receive five doses of vaccine to protect them from tetanus:

The repeated doses are needed to give a good immune response.

A tetanus booster may be recommended for adults who have an injury and are not sure about their tetanus vaccination history, or for travellers to countries where tetanus may be more of a risk. The vaccine offered is usually the Teenage Booster vaccine.

Page last updated: 
Thursday, June 28, 2018