Tetanus is a serious infectious disease caused by bacteria usually found in soil. It is sometimes called ‘lockjaw’.

It affects your nervous system and can cause severe muscle contractions, mainly of your jaw and neck muscles.

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

If you develop severe muscle stiffness or spasms, or have trouble breathing, go to your nearest emergency department or call 111 for an ambulance.

If you think you may have been exposed to tetanus, call Healthline on 0800 611 116 or see your doctor or practice nurse.



Your best protection against tetanus is to be immunised against it.

All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against tetanus as part of their free childhood immunisations at six weeks, three months and five months old. Booster doses are given to children when they’re four and 11 years old. Booster doses are also available at 45 years and 65 years of age.

A booster may be recommended following an injury that is considered high risk or where it has been more than five years since the last booster.


Tetanus is caused by bacteria that is commonly found in soil. It can enter your body through a wound. Once in the body, the bacteria can quickly multiply and release a toxin that affects the nerves, causing symptoms such as muscle stiffness and spasms.

Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person.

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.

The symptoms usually appear within four to five days.

To minimise your chances of getting tetanus, keep cuts, scratches and grazes covered while working outside. Make sure that any injury is immediately and thoroughly cleaned.

Treatment for tetanus depends on how severe your symptoms are. You will often need to go to hospital for treatment. Tetanus is usually treated with a variety of therapies and medications, such as antibiotics and medication to neutralise the toxins that the bacteria have created in your body

Tetanus can make it hard to breathe. If you develop severe muscle stiffness or spasms, go to your nearest emergency department or call 111 for an ambulance.

The best protection against tetanus is being immunised against it. Talk to your doctor or practice nurse to learn more.

Tetanus is a notifiable disease. This means that health professionals or laboratories will inform us when someone has it. This allows us to monitor the number of people who have the disease and give advice on how it can be prevented.


There are specific requirements for notifiable diseases in the Auckland region.

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Last updated 13.12.2022

For health advice call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116
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