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Diseases / Tetanus


What is it?: 

Tetanus is an acute infectious disease caused by toxigenic strains of the bacterium Clostridium tetani (C. tetani). The spores of C. tetani are present in the environment irrespective of geographical location; they enter the body through contaminated skin wounds or tissue injuries including puncture wounds. The disease may occur at any age and case-fatality rates are high even where intensive care is available. In the absence of medical intervention, the case-fatality rate approaches 100%.1

WHO estimates that in 2015, approximately 34 000 neonates died from neonatal tetanus. Tetanus is preventable through immunization with vaccines, which are included in routine childhood immunization programmes globally, and administered during antenatal care contacts in many countries.1

Clinical features: 

The disease is characterised by painful muscular contractions at the jaws and the neck; sometimes the trunk is also affected and generalised spasms of muscles may occur. In severe cases, infected persons may not be able to swallow or open his/her mouth. When tetanus affects muscles that help to breathe, the patient may die very quickly.2

Mode of transmission: 

The bacteria are found in soil and animal faeces. They get into the body through a break in the skin (such as a cut, puncture or tiny wound). Infection can also occur after burn or animal bite. Tetanus does not spread from one person to another.2

Incubation period: 

The incubation period is 3 to 21 days, with most cases developing symptoms within 14 days of infection.2


1. Proper wound management2

  • Clean wound immediately and cover properly with waterproof adhesive dressings until healed.
  • Perform hand hygiene before and after touching wounds.
  • Wounds should be assessed regularly. Consult doctor promptly if symptoms of infection develop.

2. Vaccination2

  • Depending on the type of wound and immunisation history of the person, s/he may need to receive tetanus toxoid or immunoglobulin to prevent tetanus.
  • Immunisation with tetanus toxoid containing vaccines protects against tetanus. The tetanus toxoid can be administered alone or as a combined vaccine, e.g. diphtheria & tetanus vaccine (DT), diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis and inactivated poliovirus vaccine (DTaP-IPV) (Please refer to the Hong Kong Childhood Immunisation Programme). A complete series of tetanus toxoid according to the immunisation schedule gives effective protection for at least 10 years.

Affected persons should be hospitalized for treatment including tetanus immunoglobulin, antibiotics and thorough wound treatment. In severe cases, muscle relaxants, tracheostomy and mechanical ventilation to assist breathing may be required. Active immuniation should be started concurrently with therapy if there is incomplete, uncertain or no history of immunisation.2


  1. World Health Organization. Tetanus vaccines: WHO position paper. Feb 2017.
  2. Centre for Health Protection. Communicable diseases – Tetanus. 20 Nov 2021. [ONLINE] Accessed 12 Mar 2021.