Tetanus is a rare but serious infectious disease caused by bacteria, usually found in the soil, getting into a wound.


Tetanus bacteria (Clostridium tetani) can survive for a long time outside the body and are commonly found in soil and the manure (poo) of horses and cows.

Tetanus bacteria enter the body through wounds such as cuts, grazes and puncture wounds. This could happen, for example, from a scratch or cutting yourself when gardening.

Bacteria in the wound produce a toxin. This toxin causes:

  • the muscles to stiffen around the jaw, neck, back, chest, abdomen and limbs
  • sometimes, a high temperature and sweating
  • nerve irritation, which leads to severe muscle spasms and difficulty in breathing.

Someone with tetanus will be very sick and need to go to hospital. Children and old people are especially at risk.


The symptoms usually appear within 4–5 days. They include:

  • weakness
  • stiffness
  • cramps
  • difficulty in chewing and swallowing food (lockjaw).


If you don’t have symptoms but your doctor suspects you could develop tetanus, they will clean any wounds you have and give you an injection of tetanus immunoglobulin. Tetanus immunoglobulin contains antibodies that kill the tetanus bacteria.

Your doctor may also give you an injection of tetanus vaccine if you haven’t been fully vaccinated in the past.

If you develop symptoms of tetanus you will need to go to hospital. Tetanus is a serious disease.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.


It’s important to protect babies from tetanus by getting them immunised on time. They’re not protected until they’ve had all 3 doses.

Keep cuts and grazes covered while working in the garden. Make sure to clean any injury straight away.

All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against tetanus as part of their free childhood immunisations at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.

Booster doses are given to children when they’re 4 and 11 years old.


This disease is covered on the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule. The vaccines used are INFANRIX®- hexa, INFANRIX-IPVTM and BoostrixTM.

Continuing protection

To ensure protection continues, a tetanus booster is offered at 45 and 65 years of age. Boosters may also be needed after some cuts, grazes and wounds when you’ll need to see your doctor. The vaccine is free but you’ll need to pay a small administration fee. Ask your doctor or nurse for more information.

Making a decision about immunisation

Risks associated with tetanus

  • The bacteria produce toxins which cause painful muscle spasms and lockjaw.
  • Hospital intensive care treatment is needed.
  • About 1 in 10 patients dies.
  • The risk is greatest for the very young or old.

Risks associated with the vaccine

  • About 0.5 to one in 100,000 recipients may develop nerve inflammation (pain and weakness) in the arm.

Immunisation is your choice. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or practice nurse or call the Immunisation Advisory Centre free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).

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