Tetanus is a disease caused by toxins released by a bacterium. The bacteria enter the body via open wounds and release toxins which affect the nervous system. Tetanus infections can be fatal.1
Tetanus is uncommon in Australia because of the widespread use of the tetanus vaccine. However, anyone who hasn’t been immunised is at risk.
In Australia, tetanus occurs most often in older adults who are not adequately immunised. The toxins in the bacteria affect the nervous system, creating symptoms including jaw lock, muscle spasms, difficulty breathing and stiffness in the shoulders, back and neck. Symptoms occur between three days and three weeks after infection. Generally, if symptoms appear very quickly, the infection is severe.1
Tetanus bacteria live in soil, dust and manure, particularly horse manure. Infection occurs when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin. Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person but is caused when an open wound is infected with the bacterium. The injury could be as minor as an unnoticed puncture in the skin or as major as an open fracture. Tetanus can also occur if medical procedures don’t follow sufficient sterilisation precautions.1,2
Tetanus is vaccine preventable disease. Vaccination against tetanus is recommended as part of the National Immunisation Schedule for infants, children and adolescents. Infants and children should be vaccinated at 2, 4 and 6 months of age with boosters given at 18 months and 4 years. It is recommended that another booster is given to adolescents (usually between 10 and 15 years).
Adults who have not had a booster in the last 10 years should have one at 50 years of age. In addition, anyone who has a wound that could be infected with tetanus bacteria should seek medical advice regarding whether they need a tetanus booster if they have not had one in the past 5 years. 1,2
Tetanus is a life-threatening condition and prompt medical attention is required.
The best way to reduce the risk of tetanus is by immunisation (see above). You should also avoid skin injuries, for example, by wearing gloves while gardening.
Seek medical advice for dirty wounds or wounds where the skin has been penetrated. The doctor may advise you to have a tetanus booster shot, depending on how long it is since your last tetanus dose. 1
Symptoms similar to a tetanus infection should be referred to a General Practitioner (GP) immediately. For further information on tetanus vaccination contact your healthcare professional.