A woman smiling and standing in front of an asian temple with red lanterns.

This life-threatening disease causes severe muscle spasms, breathing problems and, in some cases, death. Immunisation is recommended to help protect against tetanus.

Did you know?

  • Tetanus cannot spread from person to person.
  • Around one in 10 people infected with the bacterium that causes tetanus will die.1
  • Tetanus is rare in Australia due to most people being immunised, however immunity fades over time, so you need to be up to date with your booster doses.
A woman smiling in front of a parkland expanse.

What is it?

Tetanus is a serious disease caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which are commonly found in soil and manure.

The bacteria enters the body through wounds or breaks in the skin. They then produce toxins (poisonous substances) that affect the nervous system, causing painful muscle spasms and breathing problems. If left untreated and sometimes even with treatment, tetanus can lead to death.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms generally occur between 3 and 21 days after infection. Most cases occur within 10 days of injury (skin break or wound). More severe infections, where the wound has been heavily contaminated with the bacteria, will develop symptoms faster.

Early signs and symptoms include:

  • an inability to open the mouth (lockjaw)
  • difficulty swallowing
  • stiffness or pain in the neck, shoulder and back muscles
  • painful muscle spasms
  • difficulty breathing and talking.

Complications of tetanus include pneumonia (lung infection), bone fractures and muscle rupture. Death can result from respiratory failure (failure to breathe), hypertension (high blood pressure), hypotension (low blood pressure) or heart problems.

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following tetanus infection. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about tetanus.

How is it spread?

The tetanus bacteria live in soil, dust and manure, particularly horse manure. You can become infected if an open wound or break in the skin is exposed to the bacteria. Any kind of wound that is not a clean, minor cut is a ‘tetanus-prone’ wound. This means you could get tetanus if you are not immunised or are not up to date with your booster dose of the vaccine.

Examples of 'tetanus-prone' wounds are:

  • compound fractures (where the broken bone pierces the skin)
  • animal bites
  • wounds contaminated with soil, dust, horse manure or wood splinters
  • burns
  • any other type of wound (such as from a rusty nail or rose thorn).

Who is at risk?

In Australia, tetanus occurs mostly in adults who have not been immunised or were immunised a long time ago, however anyone who has not been immunised against tetanus is at risk of infection, particularly:

  • people who work with soil, horses or in dusty environments
  • travellers to countries where health services are difficult to access
  • people with a high risk of 'tetanus-prone' wounds.

Other people may be at risk of tetanus infection. Please speak to your doctor about your individual circumstances.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • The tetanus vaccine is recommended and provided free for children as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). This is usually given at 2, 4 and 6 months of age; with boosters given at 18 months, 4 years and again between 10 and 15 years of age. Tetanus is given as part of a combination vaccine that also helps to protect against other diseases.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
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  • All adults aged 50 years or older who have not received a booster dose of the tetanus vaccine in the past 10 years should be immunised. If you suffer a tetanus-prone wound, it is also recommended that you receive a tetanus booster if you have not had a booster within the last 5 years.

    A booster dose is recommended and provided through the NIP to pregnant women in the third trimester (between 28 and 32 weeks of every pregnancy).

    Please discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor.

    Immunisation schedule 

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisations may be recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases All adults Planning for a baby Pregnancy 65 and over 70 to 79 years Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults
    Chickenpox (varicella)            
     
    Diphtheria            
     
    Hepatitis B            
     
    Measles            
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease            
     
    Meningococcal B disease            
     
    Mumps            
     
    Pneumococcal disease+            
    Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 50 years of age, with a second dose recommended five years later. All non-Indigenous people can receive a free vaccine at 65 years of age. Women planning pregnancy who have risk factors for pneumococcal disease, including smokers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, should be assessed for pneumococcal vaccination.
    Rubella            
     
    Shingles (Herpes zoster)+            
    The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine is funded for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults over 60 years of age.
    Tetanus            
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)            
     
    Annual flu+            
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all adults, and is funded for pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy), people aged 65 and over, people with certain medical conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
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  • A tetanus booster vaccine is recommended if you are travelling to a country where health services are difficult to access, and if you have not received a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years (or 5 years for travel that is considered high risk). 

    It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss immunisation and travel health.

Treatment

Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that usually requires hospitalisation for treatment. Treatment may include an antitoxin (to neutralise as much tetanus toxin as possible), medicines to stop seizures and life support to help keep you breathing.

Important information

For information about tetanus immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Tetanus | Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/tetanus (accessed September 2018)

AUS/VAC/0092/18 Date of Approval November 2018