The Travel Health and Vaccine Specialists

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What is tetanus?
Tetanus is an illness that can occur after an injury with a contaminated object. The bacteria that cause tetanus are commonly found in soil and can get into the body through any type of break in the skin, such as wounds, burns, or animal bites.

Tetanus is often called “lockjaw” because the jaw muscles tighten, and the person cannot open their mouth. Other symptoms of tetanus include headache, painful muscle stiffness, trouble swallowing, seizures, fever, and high blood pressure. Tetanus is very dangerous. It can cause difficulty breathing and paralysis. Even with intensive care, 10%–20% of people with tetanus die.

Who is at risk?
Tetanus occurs throughout the world, and international travel generally does not increase the risk. However, people who are doing humanitarian aid work, such as constructing or demolishing buildings, may be at higher risk. Anyone who is not vaccinated against tetanus is at risk if he or she is injured by a contaminated object, uses injection drugs, or has a medical procedure in an unhygienic setting.

What can travelers do to prevent tetanus?
Get a tetanus vaccine:

  • CDC recommends a tetanus vaccine before you travel, especially if you are going to an area where it may be difficult to access health care services.
  • In the United States, tetanus vaccine is only available in combination with other vaccines that protect you against diseases such as diphtheria and pertussis. The tetanus vaccine comes in three forms: Td, Tdap (both for adults), and DTaP (for children).
  • Td is a tetanus-diphtheria vaccine given to adolescents and adults as a booster shot every 10 years, or after an exposure to tetanus under some circumstances. Tdap is similar to Td but also contains protection against pertussis (whooping cough). Adolescents 11 through 18 years of age (preferably at age 11–12 years) and adults 19 or older should receive a single lifetime dose of Tdap.
  • DTaP vaccine is given to children younger than 7 years of age.
    • Children should get 5 doses of DTaP, one dose at each of the following ages: 15–18 months 2, 4, 6, and 4–6 years.