When do tetanus symptoms show up after an injury?

Tetanus symptoms usually show up 4 to 21 days after you've been infected with the bacteria that cause the infection. Most commonly, symptoms start after about 10 days, but it can be as little as one day or as long as several months.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani, which are bacteria normally found in soil and manure. They enter the body through a wound in the skin, such as a scratch, a puncture from a rose thorn while gardening, or an animal bite.

Once inside, the bacteria multiply and release a neurotoxin (poison) called tetanospasmin and travels around the body via the bloodstream. This causes the symptoms of tetanus to develop. If it is not treated, tetanus can cause death, especially in infants and the elderly. 

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The main symptoms of tetanus are:

  • muscle stiffness (rigidity)
  • muscle spasms (involuntary contractions)

These symptoms will first affect the muscles nearest to the infected wound. They then spread to other muscles, such as:

  • chewing muscles – making it very hard to open the mouth (sometimes called "lockjaw") 
  • throat muscles – making it difficult to swallow 
  • facial muscles – making it look like someone is grinning 
  • neck muscles – making the head tilt 
  • chest muscles – making breathing difficult
  • back muscles – arching the spine 
  • abdominal (tummy) muscles
  • muscles in the arms
  • muscles in the legs

If treated, tetanus is usually a short-term condition and symptoms will progress for about two weeks. During this period muscle spasms can last several minutes and may continue for three or four weeks.

Other symptoms of tetanus include:

Seek medical attention

Tetanus can be fatal if it isn't treated. Visit the nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if:

  • you have symptoms of tetanus (muscle stiffness and spasms)
  • you've been wounded or injured recently and could have been infected with tetanus

How you are treated for tetanus depends on whether you have been previously vaccinated. 

Read the answers to more questions about accidents, first aid and treatments.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 10/08/2014

Next review due: 09/08/2016