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Tetanus Disease and Vaccine

Quick Facts


  • Tetanus, commonly called lockjaw, is caused by a bacterium that is mostly present in soil, manure, and in the digestive tracts of animals and humans. Tetanus is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from person to person. The bacteria often enter the body through a puncture wound, which can be a small as a pin prick, or wounds made rusty nails or dirty knives; 
  • Tetanus bacteria do not survive in the presence of oxygen, which is why puncture wounds, which do not bleed very much and are protected by tissue and skin from direct exposure to the air, are a perfect environment for tetanus bacteria to multiply and cause infection.
  • The incubation period for tetanus infection, from time of exposure to appearance of the first symptoms, can be three days to three weeks. Symptoms include muscular stiffness of the jaw and neck, headache, irritability, fever, and chills. As the disease progresses, the body becomes rigid and locked in spasm with head drawn back, and legs and feet extended. The jaw becomes unable to open with difficulty in swallowing and convulsions may also occur.
  •  From 1972 to 2001, 52% of all tetanus cases reported in the U.S., and 76% of all deaths from tetanus were in persons over age 65. From 1987 to 2008 persons with diabetes accounted for 13% of all reported tetanus cases and 29% of all tetanus deaths. Intravenous drug abusers accounted for 15% of all cases during that time period.
  • In 2009 there were 19 tetanus cases reported with two related deaths. Neonatal death from tetanus, which occurs in underdeveloped countries where newborns are exposed to tetanus in unsanitary conditions during the birth process, especially when the umbilical cord is cut, is virtually nonexistent in the U.S.

Tetanus Vaccine

  • There are 15 different tetanus-containing vaccines manufactured by various drug companies, which are licensed in the U.S. The tetanus containing vaccines are licensed for adults only; four are licensed for use as booster shots; one of the vaccines contains tetanus only and is licensed for use by persons age 7 years and older; and the rest are combination vaccines that may contain one or more of the following vaccines: pertussis, diphtheria, hepatitis B, Hib, polio, and/or meningococcal. 
  • According to the CDC, common tetanus vaccine reactions include injection-site redness,  pain, and swelling at the site of the injection, sometimes extending from the shoulder to the elbow. According to the CDC, individuals experiencing this type of serious local reaction should not be given further routine or emergency booster doses of tetanus containing vaccines more frequently than every 10 years.
  • As of September 1, 2015, there had been 5,277 claims filed in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) for injuries and deaths following vaccination with tetanus or tetanus-containing vaccines combined with diphtheria vaccine, including 842 deaths and 4,344 serious injuries.
  • Using the MedAlerts search engine, as of August 31, 2018 there had been 26,834 serious adverse events reported to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) in connection with tetanus and tetanus-containing vaccines combined with diphtheria vaccine since 1990. Over 70%  of those serious tetanus vaccine-related adverse events occurring in children six years old and under. Of these tetanus-vaccine related adverse event reports to VAERS, 3,031 were deaths, with over 90% of the deaths occurring in children under six years of age.
  • Reported tetanus vaccine adverse events include redness, swelling and pain at the injection site; headache; fatigue, sore and swollen joints; muscle weakness; fever; chills; nausea; shock; neuropathy; convulsions; encephalopathy; paralysis; Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS); death;
  • A review of the medical literature by the Institute of Medicine concluded that there is a causal relationship between tetanus toxoid and both brachial neuritis and Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). 

Food & Drug Administration (FDA)

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Vaccine Reaction Symptoms & Ingredients

Our Ask 8, If You Vaccinate webpage contains vaccine reaction symptoms and more. Calculate vaccine ingredients for potential toxic exposures & print a vaccination plan with the Vaccine Ingredients Calculator.

Search for Vaccine Reactions

NVIC hosts MedAlerts, a powerful VAERS database search engine. MedAlerts examines symptoms, reactions, vaccines, dates, places, and more.

Reporting a Vaccine Reaction

Since 1982, the NVIC has operated a Vaccine Reaction Registry, which has served as a watchdog on VAERS. Reporting vaccine reactions to VAERS is the law. If your doctor will not report a reaction, you have the right to report a suspected vaccine reaction to VAERS.

IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC encourages you to become fully informed about Tetanus and the Tetanus vaccine by reading all sections in the Table of Contents , which contain many links and resources such as the manufacturer product information inserts, and to speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.

The following information is provided to help you understand the disease tetanus and the tetanus vaccine so you can make an informed decision regarding the use of this vaccine. You are encouraged to read our website, the package inserts and information from doctors and the government as you make up your mind. This is what being informed is all about.

Making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child is a very important decision and you should take it very seriously. Look for a doctor who will support your decision and have a plan in case your child is injured and that injury could indicate the use of the vaccine or other methods to help keep your child well.

Tetanus Disease

Tetanus, commonly called lockjaw, is caused by a bacterium that is mostly present in soil, manure, and in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. Tetanus bacteria enter the body through a wound - sometimes as small as a pinprick or deep scratch but most often through a deep puncture wound or laceration such as those made by rusty nails or dirty knives. Such wounds are difficult to clean adequately and, if tetanus bacteria were present on the nail or knife, the bacteria can remain deep in the wound where they can grow and produce several toxins that attack the body's red and white blood cells and central nervous system. Tetanus bacteria do not grow well in the presence of oxygen, which is why deep puncture wounds are a perfect environment for them to grow in.

The incubation period for symptoms of tetanus to begin can range from one to three weeks. The first symptoms are likely to be headache, irritability, fever, chills, and muscular stiffness of the jaw and neck. As the poison increases and spreads, the body becomes rigid and locked in spasm with head drawn back, legs and feet extended, arms stiff, hands clenched and the jaw unable to open with difficulty in swallowing. The stomach muscles also become rigid and convulsions may occur.

Immediate hospitalization and the use of tetanus antitoxin and powerful tranquilizers and anti-spasmodic drugs are used to treat the disease. The symptoms last for several weeks. Complications of tetanus include pneumonia, bone fractures from violent muscle spasms and death.

In 1948 there were 601 cases of tetanus reported in the U.S., the highest number of cases reported in one year. In 2002 there were 25 cases of tetanus and 3 deaths reported in the U.S. Tetanus is a much more serious problem in underdeveloped countries, especially among newborn babies born in unsanitary conditions whose umbilical cords can become infected with tetanus.

Tetanus Vaccine

The most common reactions reported to occur following DT vaccine include swelling and pain at the injection site; sleepiness; irritability; vomiting; loss of appetite; persistent crying; and fever. Paleness, cold skin, collapse, rash, and joint pain have also been reported.

In 1994 the Institute of Medicine concluded that there is compelling scientific evidence to conclude that tetanus, DT and Td vaccines can cause Guillain-Barre syndrome including death; brachial neuritis; and death from anaphylaxis (shock).

Because either no studies or too few scientific studies had ever been conducted to investigate tetanus, DT or Td reactions, a determination could not be made as to whether DT, Td or tetanus vaccine can cause other serious health problems which are reported following tetanus, DT and Td vaccination including residual seizure disorders, demyelinating diseases of the central nervous system (transverse myelitis, optic neuritis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis), peripheral mononeuropathy, arthritis, and erythema multiforme (lesions of the skin or mucous membranes).

Vaccine makers state that tetanus, DT and Td vaccine provides protection for at least ten years after three or four "primary series"' doses have been given.

Tetanus vaccine is given in combination with diphtheria and acellular pertussis as part of the the Dtap vaccine or in combination with diphtheria as dt or TD.

If there is a serious wound and a person has had less than two doses of tetanus vaccine, an injection of Tetanus Immune Globulin (TIG) is recommended. This vaccine contains antibodies that will fight the tetanus bacteria. In most cases, antibodies will be produced that will protect against tetanus if it is given within 72 hours of the injury.

NVIC's Tetanus Video Collection

NVIC DPT Vaccine Video Playlist

View the collection of video resources within the player below for more information on the DPT vaccine (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus combination vaccine).

To view the entire video collection, click the hamburger menu in the upper left corner of the video player above. This will expand a full list of videos. You may also open the video player in full screen mode for optimal display.

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