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Tetanus, also known as lockjaw (which comes from the locking or tightening of the muscles around the jaw, which prevents a child from opening her mouth or swallowing), is a serious and potentially fatal infection caused by a poison (toxin) made by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. This germ is present in soil and can contaminate a wound. In fact, any open wound or cut, no matter how small, is a possible site of a tetanus infection. However, an infection is more likely to occur in deep puncture wounds and those contaminated with dirt, feces, or soil. A child who is injured by a dirty garden tool or a rock thrown up by a lawn mower may develop tetanus if she has not been properly immunized. A newborn can get the infection if the umbilical cord gets contaminated.

Tetanus is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. Because of the common use of tetanus immunizations, tetanus is very rare in the United States. There are only a few dozen cases each year, usually in unimmunized people or people who have not kept up with the recommended booster every 10 years.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms usually develop gradually in the first 1 to 2 weeks after a wound has been contaminated with tetanus bacteria. The affected child experiences spasms of the jaw muscles, a headache, and irritability. Next, she experiences muscle tightening, pain, and spasms spread to other parts of the body including the neck, shoulders, and back with increasing intensity.

The disease is fatal in some cases.

What You Can Do

If your child has a wound that may have been contaminated with soil, contact your pediatrician as soon as possible, especially if you’re unsure of your youngster’s immunization status.

Successful treatment is possible if the disease is diagnosed and managed promptly. Your child will be hospitalized immediately and probably placed in an intensive care unit. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic medicine such as metronidazole or penicillin and an antitoxin drug.

Last Updated
Immunizations &Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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