Causes and Risk Factors of Tetanus

May 7th 2016

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani, which can be found in the soil in virtually all parts of the world. The disease occurs when a person or animal becomes injured and the bacteria enter the wound. Although it is commonly associated with deep wounds or punctures, smaller injuries can also allow the disease to take hold.

As the bacteria multiply in the wound, they create a neurotoxin that causes the distinctive muscle spasms associated with the disease. These spasms can eventually lead to the affected person's death by causing the muscles used for breathing to seize up. It can affect people of all ages, but infants are particularly susceptible and more likely to die from it.

Who Is At Risk?

Anyone who experiences a wound that is exposed to contaminated soil or manure can get tetanus if they have not been vaccinated against it. Although the disease cannot be spread directly from person to person, many people in developing nations catch it from contaminated medical equipment used during surgery. Infants who are circumcised in nonsterile conditions are particularly at risk.

The only people who are at little to no risk of catching tetanus are people who have been vaccinated against it. Tetanus is a standard childhood vaccine, and pregnant women can also pass their immunity onto their children in the womb. Adults need booster shots approximately every five to seven years. People who are not sure of their vaccination status should get a booster immediately after becoming injured.

What Injuries Cause Tetanus?

Puncture wounds are one of the most common tetanus-causing injuries, but all injuries that break the skin can be an entry point for the tetanus bacteria. However, large or deep wounds may be more likely. Wounds generally need to have swelling around the site to allow the bacteria to multiply, and injuries in which a foreign object stays embedded in the skin may be at higher risk. The presence of other infection-causing bacteria can also help tetanus spread.

People have contracted tetanus through all kinds of wounds, from burns to tattoos or piercings done in unhygienic conditions. Intravenous drug users sometimes get it through their injection sites. Newborns can get it through their umbilical stumps.


Tetanus, which is sometimes colloquially referred to as lockjaw, is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. The telltale symptom is frequent and painful muscle spasms, especially in the jaw and face. Although this disease can affect anyone in the right conditions, many people do not fully understand what causes it.

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