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Vaccines to Prevent Tetanus

  • DTaP: Pediatric diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine (Spanish)
  • DT: Pediatric diphtheria and tetanus vaccine
  • Td: Older children and adults tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Spanish)
  • Tdap: Older children and adults tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine (Spanish)

Playing outdoors can mean getting cuts that may become infected with bacteria commonly found in soil, including the ones that cause tetanus. Tetanus vaccine can help prevent tetanus disease, commonly known as "lockjaw." Tetanus is a serious disease that causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body. It can lead to "locking" of the jaw so the person cannot open his mouth or swallow. Tetanus leads to death in about one in ten cases.

There are four combination vaccines used to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough): DTaP, Tdap, DT, and Td. Two of these (DTaP and DT) are given to children younger than seven years of age, and two (Tdap and Td) are given to older children and adults. Talk to your provider if you are unsure which vaccines you or your children have received in the past.

DTaP or DT

For Infants and Children

  • Children should get five doses of DTaP vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages: 
    • 2 months
    • 4 months 
    • 6 months 
    • 15 through 18 months 
    • 4 through 6 years
  • DT does not contain pertussis, and is used as a substitute for DTaP for children who cannot tolerate pertussis vaccine.
  • DTaP vaccine may be given at the same visit as other vaccines.
  • DTaP is not licensed for anyone over the age of six. Children older than six, adolescents, and adults may get a similar vaccine, Tdap or Td.

Td or Tdap

For Preteens, Teens, and Adults

  • Td is a tetanus and diphtheria vaccine given to preteens, teens, and adults as a booster shot every 10 years, or after an exposure to tetanus under some circumstances. 
  • Tdap is similar to Td, but also contains protection against pertussis. Tdap should be given as a one-time booster in place of Td. Tdap is especially important for those in close contact with infants.
  • Preteens and teens 11 through 18 years old (preferably at age 11-12 years old) should receive a single dose of Tdap.
  • Adults 19 years or older who did not receive Tdap as a preteen or teen should also receive a single dose of Tdap.
  • Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap during each pregnancy, preferably at 27 through 36 weeks to maximize that amount of protective antibodies passed to the baby, but the vaccine can be safely given at any time during pregnancy.
  • New mothers who have never gotten Tdap should get a dose as soon as possible after delivery.
  • Tdap should also be given to 7 through 10-year-olds who are not fully immunized against pertussis. 
  • Tdap can be given no matter when Td (tetanus and diphtheria vaccine) was last received.

Note: Upper-case letters in these vaccine abbreviations denote full-strength doses of diphtheria (D) and tetanus (T) toxoids and pertussis (P) vaccine. Lower-case “d” and “p” denote reduced doses of diphtheria and pertussis used in the adolescent/adult-formulations. The “a” in DTaP and Tdap stands for “acellular,” meaning that the pertussis component contains only a part of the pertussis organism.

Last reviewed: April 2015

What is Tetanus (Lockjaw)?

Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria. When the bacteria invade the body, they produce a toxin, or poison, that causes painful muscle contractions. Tetanus infection mainly affects the neck and abdomen. Tetanus is also called "lockjaw" because it often causes a person's neck and jaw muscles to lock, making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. It can also cause breathing problems, severe muscle spasms, seizures, and paralysis. Complete recovery can take months. If left untreated, tetanus can be fatal.

Tetanus is different from other vaccine-preventable diseases in that it does not spread from person-to-person. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust, and manure and enter the body through breaks in the skin – usually cuts or puncture wounds.

Who gets Tetanus (Lockjaw)?

Everyone needs protection from tetanus. The DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) can help prevent tetanus in young children. DTaP shots are recommended for healthy babies at ages 2, 4, and 6 months, and again at 15 through 18 months. A DTaP booster is recommended for children ages 4 through 6 years old.

Because immunity to tetanus decreases over time, older children need to get the Tdap vaccine. This booster shot contains a full concentration of tetanus and lower concentrations of diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). The Tdap vaccine is recommended for all 11-18 year olds, preferably given to preteens going to the doctor for a regular check-up at 11 or 12 years old.

Early symptoms: lockjaw, stiffness in the neck and abdomen, and difficulty swallowing.

Later symptoms: severe muscle spasms, generalized tonic seizure-like activity, severe autonomic nervous system disorders.

Because immunity to tetanus decreases over time, adults also need to get a booster shot every 10 years to stay protected. For adults who haven't gotten Tdap yet, the easiest thing to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it's a good idea for adults to talk to a doctor about what's best for their specific situation. Make sure you and your child are protected against tetanus.

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Microscopic view of tetanus (lockjaw).

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