What is tetanus?

Short Answer

Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is an infectious disease of the nervous system that causes painful muscle tightening all over the body. It is the only vaccine-preventable disease that is infectious but not contagious, meaning that it’s spread through tetanus bacteria that get into the body through cuts or other damage to the skin, but it can’t be spread from person to person. The nickname comes from the way an infected person’s jaw muscles “lock” shut, which makes it impossible for them to open their mouth or swallow. The tetanus vaccine, delivered as part of the DTaP combination vaccine (which also protects against whooping cough and diphtheria), is 95% effective in preventing all three diseases.



Symptoms & Incubation

Tetanus in children starts with headache, jaw cramping, and muscle spasms (sudden, involuntary muscle tightening).

It also causes the following:

  • Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Seizures (jerking or staring)
  • Fever and sweating
  • High blood pressure and fast heart rate


Tetanus is often called “lockjaw” because the jaw muscles tighten, and the person cannot open their mouth.

Symptoms may not appear for eight days to several months following tetanus infection.


Tetanus is very dangerous. It can cause breathing problems and paralysis. Muscle spasms can be strong enough to break a child’s spine or other bones.

It can take months to recover fully from tetanus. A child might need weeks of hospital care. Tetanus is fatal for as many as one out of five people who contract the disease.


The bacteria that cause tetanus are found in soil. They get into the body through a puncture of the skin, like a cut or scrape. A person can also be infected after a burn or an animal bite. Unlike other vaccine-preventable diseases, tetanus does not spread from one person to another.

High-risk Populations

All children are fairly equally at risk for contracting tetanus. Those who regularly play outside barefoot may be at higher risk due to the possibility of cuts by infected rocky soil, broken glass, garden tools, and other common, sharp outdoor materials.


The DTaP vaccine is a shot that combines the vaccines for tetanus and two other serious diseases: diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis). Booster vaccines are needed every 10 years to keep up protection from tetanus

Safety & Side Effects

The DTaP vaccine is very safe, and it is effective at preventing tetanus (along with whooping cough and diphtheria). Vaccines, like any medicine, can have side effects. But severe side effects from the DTaP vaccine are very rare.

Mild side effects are seen in about one quarter of children and include fever, and redness, swelling, and/or tenderness at the injection site. These discomforts occur more often after the fourth and fifth doses of the DTaP series than after earlier doses.

Sometimes the fourth or fifth dose of DTaP vaccine is followed by swelling of the entire arm or leg in which the shot was given, for one to seven days (up to about one child in 30).

Other mild side effects include fussiness (up to about one child in three), tiredness or poor appetite (up to about one child in 10), and vomiting (up to about one child in 50). These problems generally occur one to three days after the shot.

More uncommon, moderate side effects include seizure (about one child out of 14,000) and high fever of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher (about one child out of 16,000).



Children should get five doses of the DTaP vaccine at the following ages for best protection:

  • One dose each at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months;
  • A fourth dose at 15 through 18 months; and
  • A fifth dose at 4 through 6 years of age.

It is safe to get the DTaP vaccine at the same time as other vaccines, even for babies.


Since the Vaccine Was Introduced…

Before the tetanus vaccine, there were more than 500 to 600 cases of tetanus reported each year in the U.S. Cases dropped steadily after the vaccine. Today, almost all cases of tetanus are among people who have never had the vaccine.