Tetanus (Lockjaw)

Tetanus is an uncommon but very dangerous disease — of every 10 people who get it, as many as 2 will die. Thanks in part to tetanus vaccines, deaths from tetanus in the United States have dropped by 99% since 1947.

There are 4 vaccines that include protection against tetanus:

  • The DTaP vaccine protects young children from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough
  • The DT vaccine protects young children from diphtheria and tetanus
  • The Tdap vaccine protects preteens, teens, and adults from tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough
  • The Td vaccine protects preteens, teens, and adults from tetanus and diphtheria

Why are tetanus vaccines important?

Because of the vaccines, tetanus is rare — but people still get the disease. When they do, the complications can be serious and even deadly. People who get it can have trouble breathing and painful muscle spasms that are strong enough to break bones. Tetanus can also cause paralysis (not being able to move).

There’s no cure for tetanus. Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent tetanus.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria. You may have heard tetanus called “lockjaw” — that’s because one of the most common signs is painful tightening in the jaw muscles that can make it hard to open the mouth, breathe, or swallow.

Other symptoms of tetanus can include:

  • Headache
  • Fever and sweating
  • Stiff muscles
  • Seizures (sudden, unusual movements or behavior)
  • High blood pressure and fast heart rate

Tetanus isn’t contagious — it doesn’t pass from person to person, like through touching or kissing. The bacteria that cause tetanus can be in dirt, dust, and poop. Usually, the bacteria enter the body through broken skin, like:

  • A deep cut or wound, like from stepping on a nail
  • Burns or dead skin

Learn more about tetanus

Who needs to get tetanus vaccines?

Everyone needs tetanus vaccines throughout their lives. That means everyone needs to get vaccinated as babies, children, and adults.

Infants and children birth through age 6

Young children need the DTaP vaccine as part of their routine vaccine schedule. Young children need a dose of the vaccine at:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 through 18 months
  • 4 through 6 years

If your child has had a serious reaction to the whooping cough part of the DTaP vaccine, they may be able to get the DT vaccine instead. Your child’s doctor can recommend the vaccine that’s right for your child.

See the routine vaccination schedule for:

Preteens and teens ages 7 through 18

Older children need 1 booster shot of the Tdap vaccine at age 11 or 12 as part of their routine vaccine schedule.

If your child misses the booster shot, talk with your child’s doctor about catching up.

Adults age 19 and older

Adults need 1 booster shot of the Td vaccine every 10 years as part of their routine vaccine schedule. If you get a deep cut or a burn, you may need the booster earlier — especially if the cut or burn is dirty.

If you missed the Tdap booster as a teen, you’ll need to get a Tdap booster instead to make sure you have protection from whooping cough.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women need 1 booster shot of the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy.

Talk with your doctor about how to protect your family from tetanus.

Who should not get tetanus vaccines?

You should not get a tetanus vaccine if you:

  • Have a serious allergy to any ingredient in the vaccine
  • Have had a serious reaction to the diphtheria, tetanus, or whooping cough vaccines in the past

Be sure to tell your doctor before getting vaccinated if you:

  • Have seizures or other nervous system problems
  • Had serious pain or swelling after any diphtheria, tetanus, or whooping cough vaccine
  • Have had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (an immune system disorder)

If you’re sick, you may need to wait until you’re feeling better to get a tetanus vaccine.

What are the side effects of tetanus vaccines?

Side effects are usually mild and go away in a few days. They may include:

  • Pain, swelling, or redness where the shot was given
  • Low fever and chills
  • Headache and body aches
  • Feeling tired
  • Upset stomach, throwing up, and diarrhea (watery poop)
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Fussing (in children)

It’s very rare, but the DTaP vaccine can cause the following symptoms in children:

  • Seizures (about 1 child in 14,000)
  • Non-stop crying, for 3 hours or more (up to about 1 child in 1,000)
  • High fever, over 105°F (about 1 child in 16,000)

Like any medicine, there's a very small chance that tetanus vaccines could cause a serious reaction. Keep in mind that getting a tetanus vaccine is much safer than getting tetanus. Learn more about vaccine side effects.

Where can I get more information about tetanus vaccines?

Vaccine Information Statements (VISs) have detailed information about recommended vaccines. Read the VISs for vaccines that protect against tetanus:

  • DTaP vaccine — protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (for infants and children)
  • Tdap vaccine — protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (for preteens, teens, and adults)
  • Td vaccine — protects against diphtheria and tetanus (for preteens, teens, and adults)

Find the VISs for these vaccines in other languages

Get vaccinated

Getting vaccinated is easy. Vaccines are available at the doctor’s office and many pharmacies — and most are covered by insurance.

Find out how to get vaccinated.

Content created by Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP)
Content last reviewed