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

This disease causes severe muscle spasms, breathing problems and in some cases can be life threatening.

Did you know?

  • Tetanus cannot spread from person to person.

  • 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 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 a healthcare professional 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. 

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 a healthcare professional about your individual circumstances.

Prevention and Treatment options

  • Children and Adults

    The risk of tetanus can be reduced through:

    • avoiding injury to the skin (e.g. if gardening wear gloves)
    • keeping cuts and wounds clean and covering wounds when doing activities (e.g. sport, gardening)
    • Seeking medical attention if the wound is dirty or the skin has been broken
    • immunisation

    Tetanus is a life-threatening disease that usually requires hospitalisation for treatment. Treatment may include an antitoxin, antibiotics, medicines to stop seizures and life support (if you have severe breathing issues).

    Please speak to a healthcare professional for more information about tetanus prevention and treatment options.

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  • Travellers

    It is important to plan ahead and see a healthcare professional at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss prevention options and travel health.

PM-AU-AVX-WCNT-190049 Date of GSK approval: January 2021