Tetanus - Immunisation

This page provides a brief summary of the disease and the vaccine that is available to prevent it. Links to more detailed information are provided at the bottom of the page.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a painful, often fatal disease. Bacteria found in the soil or manure release a toxin and cause painful muscle spasms and lockjaw.  The effects spread causing convulsions, breathing difficulties and abnormal heart rhythms.

How do people get tetanus?

Bacteria from the soil or manure enter the body through open cuts and burns. The wound may be as small or as insignificant as a pinprick.  Tetanus is not contagious (not spread from person to person). People get tetanus from the environment and not from other people.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

Generalised symptoms occur in 80 % of cases. The first symptom is severe muscle spasm felt in the neck and jaw muscles (Lockjaw). This may be followed by painful muscle spasms in the back, abdomen and limbs. Fractures can be caused by the violent contractions. Difficulty in breathing and swallowing can develop. A spasm of part of the voice box can cause immediate death. The disease remains severe for 1 to 4 weeks, and then gradually subsides. Death may occur in 10%- 25% of cases.

Tetanus is a very serious disease. The risk is greatest for the very young or aged over 60. In infants tetanus can lead to permanent brain damage because of loss of oxygen. Fractures of limbs and spine can lead to permanent disability. Of the people who get tetanus 1 in 10 will die.  The severe muscles spasms interfere with breathing.  

Although tetanus is now rare in Ireland due to routine immunisation programmes, the bacteria that cause the disease are still present in the soil. They cannot be eradicated from our environment. The only way to protect yourself from tetanus is by immunisation.

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Who should get tetanus vaccine?

Tetanus is prevented by vaccination.

Tetanus vaccine is given to children as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

The 6 in 1 vaccine protects against Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Hib (haemophilus influenzae type b) Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Polio and Tetanus.

A booster vaccine dose is given at 4-5 years of age (4 in 1 vaccine) which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Polio and Tetanus.

Another booster dose is given in 1st year of second level school (Tdap vaccine) which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) and Tetanus.

If you or your child requires vaccination, or you are unsure of you or your child’s vaccination status, contact your GP for advice.

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Who should not get tetanus vaccine?

There are very few people who should not get tetanus vaccine. Your child should not get the vaccine if they have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the vaccine or any part of the vaccine.

What to expect after getting tetanus vaccine?

After getting the vaccine, your child may have discomfort, redness or swelling around the area where the injection was given. They may be irritable and have a fever.

If this happens you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen. You should also give them plenty to drink. Make sure they are not too warm and that their clothes are not rubbing against the injection area.

Children usually recover from these minor side effects within a day or two

Serious side effects are very rare.

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How does tetanus vaccine work?

The vaccine is made of inactivated toxins from tetanus bacteria, this is called a toxoid preparation. Vaccination stimulates the body to produce serum anti-toxin.

A total of five doses of tetanus toxoid containing vaccine at the appropriate intervals are considered to give lifelong immunity. Recovery from tetanus may not result in immunity, and vaccination following tetanus is indicated. 

How effective is tetanus containing vaccine?

Almost 100% of children are immune to tetanus after getting the recommended doses of the vaccine. 

Where can I find out more?

You can ask for further information regarding immunisation from your G.P., Public Health Nurse or local health office.

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This page was updated on 23 August 2023