Te pakaua hukihuki Tetanus

Tetanus (lockjaw) is a rare but serious infectious disease that is fatal if it is not treated. It is caused by a bacteria toxin getting into a wound. Someone with tetanus will be very sick and need to go to hospital.

How you get tetanus

Tetanus bacteria are in the environment, including:

  • soil
  • dust
  • horse and cow poo (manure).

Tetanus is not spread from person to person.

The bacteria enter the body through broken skin such as cuts, grazes, road burn, animal bites or punctures. For example, you could get tetanus from a scratch or cut when gardening.

Keep cuts and grazes covered while working in the soil. Make sure to clean any injury straight away.

Rust does not cause tetanus. Rusty objects are often dirty and the soil on them carries tetanus bacteria. For example, a puncture from a rusty nail allows the bacteria from the dirt to get in.

Symptoms of tetanus

Symptoms usually appear within 4 to 5 days. They include:

  • weakness
  • stiffness
  • cramps
  • difficulty in chewing and swallowing food (lockjaw).

Tetanus bacteria in a wound make a toxin. This toxin can cause:

  • the muscles to stiffen around the jaw, neck, back, chest, abdomen and limbs
  • a high temperature (fever) and sweating
  • nerve irritation, which leads to severe muscle spasms and difficulty in breathing.

Tetanus is a serious disease that can cause death without immunisation or proper wound treatment.

Who to contact for medical advice

If you have symptoms that you are worried about:

  • contact your usual doctor or healthcare provider
  • call Healthline for free advice 0800 611 116
  • call 111 for an ambulance in an emergency.

Diagnosing tetanus

Doctors diagnose tetanus based on:

  • a physical exam
  • signs and symptoms of tetanus
  • medical and immunisation history.

There are no lab tests that confirm tetanus, but a doctor or healthcare provider might test to see if another condition is causing the symptoms.

Treatment for tetanus

If you do not have symptoms but your doctor thinks you could develop tetanus, they will clean any wounds you have and give you an injection of tetanus immunoglobulin.

Your doctor may also give you an injection of tetanus vaccine if you have not been fully immunised in the past.

If you have tetanus

If you develop symptoms of tetanus you will need to go to hospital. Tetanus is a serious disease — there is no treatment for it once it has developed.

If you have tetanus, healthcare providers work to support you as the disease takes its course.

Hospitalisation and supportive care includes:

  • breathing assistance
  • circulation and heart function support
  • pain and anti-spasm medication
  • nutritional support such as tube feeding
  • prevention of blood clots and skin sores.

You will usually spend several weeks in intensive care units waiting for the disease to clear. Most people who survive tetanus recover fully. This is often after a long period of physical rehabilitation.

Preventing tetanus

Immunisation is the best defence against tetanus. It is important for pēpi (babies) to get all 3 of their free doses. Boosters are available to people from 45 and 65 years of age.

The protection from immunisation against tetanus decreases over time. It is important to stay up to date with your immunisations.

Find out about tetanus vaccines, who needs them and when to get them:

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