What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious but rare condition caused by bacteria getting into a wound. Tetanus bacteria can survive for a long periods outside the body; they are commonly found in soil and in the manure of animals such as horses and cows. If the bacteria enter the body through a wound they can quickly multiply and release a toxin that affects the nerves, causing symptoms such as muscle stiffness and spasms. Most people who get tetanus have either not been vaccinated against it or did not complete the entire vaccination schedule.

How you get tetanus

Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person. The bacteria can get into your body through:

  • cuts, grazes or burns
  • tears or splits in the skin
  • animal bites
  • body piercings, tattoos and injections
  • eye injuries
  • injecting contaminated drugs


The symptoms of tetanus usually start around 4 to 21 days after infection. The main symptoms include:

  • stiffness in your jaw muscles (lockjaw), which can make it difficult to open your mouth
  • painful muscle spasms, which can make it difficult to breathe and swallow
  • a high temperature
  • sweating
  • a rapid heartbeat

If not treated, the symptoms can get worse progressively.

If you are concerned about a wound, particularly if you have not been fully vaccinated for tetanus, or are not sure if you have, please seek medical advice promptly.

Go to your nearest A&E immediately, or call 190 for an ambulance, if you get severe muscle stiffness or spasms.


If a doctor thinks there is a chance you could develop tetanus from a wound, but you do not yet have any symptoms, they will make sure your wound is thoroughly cleaned. You may also be given an injection of tetanus immunoglobulin. 

Tetanus immunoglobulin contains antibodies that provide immediate, but short-term, protection from tetanus. You may also be given antibiotics.

Tetanus vaccination

The tetanus vaccine is given as part of the GHA childhood vaccination programme.                                                                  Tetanus is found throughout the world, so it is advisable to ensure you are fully vaccinated before travelling abroad.