• Clinical science

Tetanus (Lockjaw)


Tetanus (lockjaw) is an acute disease caused by neurotoxins from the bacterium Clostridium tetani. C. tetani is ubiquitous in spore form and enters the body through broken skin (e.g., deep puncture wounds). Its toxins then cause uncontrolled activation of alpha motor neurons, leading to muscular rigidity and spasms. Patients classically present with a triad of trismus, risus sardonicus, and opisthotonus. Despite treatment with anti-tetanus toxoid immunoglobulin and antibiotics (e.g., metronidazole), the overall prognosis is poor once symptoms begin. Therefore, vaccination as primary prevention is crucial.


  • Pathogen
  • Route of infection
    • Clostridial spores contaminate a wound (e.g., through dirt, saliva, feces).
    • Localized ischemia, necrosis, foreign bodies and/or coinfection with other bacteria predispose to infection.
    • Wounds with compromised blood supply create anaerobic conditions that are required for the germination and multiplication of C. tetani.
  • Groups with a higher risk: non-immunized individuals; , those with diabetes, neonates, IV drug abusers, certain patient groups (i.e., postsurgical, obstetric, dental)


Ubiquitous C. tetani spores contaminate a wound bacterial reproduction under anaerobic conditions → production of the neurotoxins tetanospasmin and tetanolysin

Neurotoxins (not the pathogen itself) cause tetanic contractions.

Tetanospasmin causes tetanic spasms.

Clinical features

  • Incubation period: 3–21 days (average: ∼ 10 days)
  • Generalized tetanus: painful muscle spasms and rigidity
    • Trismus: lockjaw due to spasms of jaw musculature (commonly the first tetanus-specific symptom)
    • Risus sardonicus: sustained facial muscle spasm that causes a characteristic, apparently sardonic grin and raised eyebrows
    • Opisthotonus: backward arching of spine, neck, and head caused by spasms of the back muscles
    • Neck stiffness
    • Abdominal rigidity
  • Life-threatening complications
    • Laryngospasm and/or respiratory muscles spasms → respiratory failure [3]
    • Autonomic dysfunction → circulatory arrest and shock [3][1]

Subtypes and variants

Neonatal tetanus

  • Occurs in infants of inadequately immunized mothers after unsterile management of the umbilical stump
  • Typically occurs 5–8 days after birth, but the incubation period can take up to several weeks
  • Typically a rapid onset of symptoms as axonal length in infants is shorter than in adults [4]
  • Symptoms

Other types [5]

  • Localized tetanus: Patients present with painful muscle contractions in areas surrounding the injury site only.
  • Cephalic tetanus


  • Tetanus is a clinical diagnosis based on muscle spasms and rigidity associated with an entry point for bacteria and inadequate immunization. [6]
  • Wound culture and serology may confirm the diagnosis but have low sensitivity and specificity.


In addition to initial supportive care, management should focus on controlling the infection, eliminating toxin production, and neutralizing circulating toxins.


Tetanus vaccination [7]

Since infection does not confer immunity, routine immunization is generally recommended.

Tetanus prophylaxis after injury

Post-exposure tetanus prophylaxis
Vaccination history Clean, minor wounds All other wounds

Unknown or < 3 tetanus toxoid doses

Active immunization with tetanus toxoid (Td or Tdap) Active immunization with Td or Tdap AND passive immunization with HTIG
≥ 3 tetanus toxoid doses

Active immunization with Td or Tdap if last vaccination ≥ 10 years ago

Active immunization if last vaccination ≥ 5 years ago