What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The main symptoms of tetanus are:

Muscle stiffness – tetanus can cause the muscles in your jaw and neck to become stiff, making it difficult to open your mouth. In some cases the facial muscles may also be affected, causing the face to involuntarily take on a grimacing or grinning expression. Less commonly, muscle stiffness can also affect muscles in the abdomen, chest, and back, and cause them to become rigid.

Muscle spasms – in around 80% of cases, tetanus can cause the muscles to painfully contract, especially muscles in the neck and jaw. This can make swallowing and breathing difficult, potentially leading to shortness of breath and choking. In severe cases, the muscle spasms can affect the entire body and cause painful and powerful convulsions. These spasms can be intense enough to cause bone fractures and muscle tears.

Other tetanus symptoms include:

  • a high temperature (fever)
  • sweating
  • irritability
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • elevated blood pressure
  • blood in poo
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of bowel control
  • headache
  • sensitivity to touch
  • sore throat

How long does it take for tetanus symptoms to show?

On average it takes between 7 to 10 days after infection for symptoms of tetanus to develop, though symptoms can appear anywhere between 4 to 21 days after you’ve been infected.

The first symptoms of tetanus are usually stiffness and mild spasms in the jaw muscles. Left untreated, these symptoms can progress to a serious stage over the course of a few hours to a few days.

How soon should I get a tetanus shot after being injured?

You should get in contact with your GP or go to A&E as soon as possible if you have been injured and believe there is a risk you have contracted tetanus.

It is especially important to seek urgent medical attention if:

There is dirt in the wound – the bacteria that causes tetanus lives in soil, dust, and manure. If any of these substances get into the wound, there is a higher risk of developing tetanus, so you should wash out the wound and see an appropriate healthcare professional straight away.

The wound was caused by a metal object – the bacteria that causes tetanus can also thrive on rusty metal, so if your wound was caused by a metal object then you should seek medical advice.

There’s a deep wound – deep puncture wounds, such as those caused by stepping on a nail, are more prone to infection as bacteria can get further into them and it can be hard to properly clean the wound out.

You know you haven’t been vaccinated against tetanus, or you’re not sure – tetanus is a serious condition that requires treatment in hospital if the symptoms progress. If you’ve been injured and you’re not sure if you’ve had the shot, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Can the symptoms of tetanus be treated?

If you have already started to develop symptoms of tetanus, then you will need to go to hospital to receive emergency treatment.

The treatment will depend on your specific circumstance, but will typically involve:

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) – this is a medication that is made from human blood, and contains antibodies that can help to boost your immune system. This means that your body is more effective at fighting off an infection, including the bacteria that causes tetanus. IVIG is only helpful in fighting off existing tetanus infections, and will not make you immune to future infections.

Doses of the tetanus vaccine – if you haven’t received any previous doses of the tetanus vaccine, or have not received a dose in the last 10 years, then additional doses of the tetanus vaccine may be given to help your body to start producing the antibodies necessary to fight off a tetanus infection. These may not always be effective in time, dependant on how far along your symptoms are, as it takes up to 2 weeks to become fully immune against tetanus after getting the vaccine.

Antibiotic medication – tetanus is caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria, which can infect deep wounds such as punctures. Antibiotic medication can help to kill off the bacteria to weaken, and potentially stop, the infection.

Anti-inflammatory medication and muscle relaxers – tetanus causes muscles to stiffen and spasm, so medication to help relieve these symptoms are commonly used during treatment to lessen the risk of complications and to make the patient more comfortable.

Assisted food and water – while suffering from symptoms of tetanus, it can be difficult to feed yourself, due to the painful muscle spasms. In severe cases, it may be necessary to be given fluids intravenously (directly into the vein) to prevent you from becoming dehydrated.

Ventilator – in some cases, tetanus can restrict the airways and make breathing difficult, so a ventilator may be required to assist breathing.

With proper hospital treatment, most people who experience symptoms of tetanus make a full recovery. However, it can take a few weeks to a few months to recover from tetanus.

How can I prevent the symptoms of tetanus?

Get the tetanus vaccine – the tetanus vaccine is an inactivated vaccine, which means it doesn’t contain any of the live bacteria that causes tetanus. Your immune system is exposed to a little part of the bacteria so it can develop antibodies which can effectively fight off a tetanus infection in the future, without risking you having to get infected first. In the UK, the tetanus vaccine is usually given as a combination vaccine with other vaccines, such as diphtheria and polio. You can get the tetanus, diphtheria, and polio combination vaccine at any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK

Wound management – proper wound care after being injured can help to reduce the likelihood that you will develop an infection, including from the bacteria that cause tetanus. You should cover the wound with a clean cloth and apply pressure until the bleeding stops, then rinse the wound thoroughly with clean running water. This will help to get any foreign material that could cause an infection, such as a dirt, out of the wound. After the wound has been cleaned, apply a thin layer of antibiotic cream and then cover the wound with sterile bandages to prevent future contamination. You should still see a doctor as soon as possible after treating the wound.