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Tetanus in Children

Tetanus in Children

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is an acute, sometimes fatal, disease of the central nervous system. It's caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium, which usually enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus bacteria live in soil and manure, but also can be found in the human intestine, animal saliva, and other places:

  • Tetanus occurs more often in warmer climates or during the warmer months.

  • Tetanus is very uncommon in the U.S. due to widespread immunization.

How is tetanus transmitted?

Tetanus is not a contagious illness. It occurs in people who have had a skin or deep tissue wound or puncture. It is also seen in the umbilical stump of infants in underdeveloped countries. This occurs in places where immunization to tetanus is not widespread and women may not know how to properly care for the stump after the baby is born. After being exposed to tetanus, it may take from 3 to 21 days to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take from 3 days to 2 weeks to develop.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

These are the most common symptoms of tetanus:

  • Stiffness of the jaw (also called lockjaw)

  • Stiffness of the abdominal and back muscles

  • Contraction of the facial muscles

  • Convulsions

  • Fast pulse

  • Fever

  • Sweating

  • Painful muscle spasms near the wound area (if these affect the larynx or chest wall, the person may not be able to breathe)

  • Trouble swallowing

The symptoms of tetanus may look like other medical conditions. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Symptoms and medical history usually confirm the diagnosis of tetanus.

What is the treatment for tetanus?

Treatment for tetanus (or to reduce the risk of tetanus after an injury) may include:

  • Thorough cleaning of the wound

  • A course of tetanus antitoxin injections

  • A tracheostomy (a breathing tube inserted surgically in the windpipe) in severe cases with respiratory problems

  • Medicine to control spasms

  • Antibiotics

  • Hospitalization

How is tetanus prevented?

The CDC recommends that children need 5 DTaP shots. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against 3 diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.

  • The first 3 shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age.

  • Between 15 and 18 months of age, the fourth shot is given

  • A fifth is given when a child enters school at 4 to 6 years of age.

  • At regular checkups for 11- or 12-year-olds, a preteen should get a dose of Tdap. The Tdap booster also contains tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

  • If an adult did not get a Tdap as a preteen or teen, then he or she should get a dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. Adults should then get a Td booster every 10 years, but it can be given before the 10-year mark.  If you or your child get a contaminated deep penetrating injury and you are not sure when your last booster was, it's usually better to get a repeat Tdap rather than risk a chance of getting tetanus.

  • Pregnant women should receive a Tdap vaccine between the 27th and 36th week of their third trimester to increase protection for the newborn after birth. 

Always talk to your healthcare provider for advice.

Reviewed Date: 10-01-2016

Tetanus in Children

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.