What is a Tetanus Toxin?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tetanus toxin is a toxin produced by Clostridium tetani bacteria. One toxin in particular is of medical concern because it causes muscle spasms in victims, although several other toxins are also produced by these common bacteria. Tetanus toxin causes the distinctive symptoms known as "tetanus" and can be fatal in some cases. It is also used in the production of a toxoid used to create resistance to tetanus infections. The widespread use of tetanus vaccinations has greatly reduced the incidence of tetanus.

It is recommended that adults receive a tetanus booster every 10 years.
It is recommended that adults receive a tetanus booster every 10 years.

These bacteria are naturally found in soils all over the world. Bacterial toxins often have a function for the bacteria, but in the case of tetanus toxin, there is no known function. The toxin is released when individual bacteria die and break up. In the soil, it dissipates harmlessly, but if the bacteria happen to be colonizing an injury, the toxin travels through the blood and lymph of the body.

Difficulty swallowing may be a symptom of tetanus.
Difficulty swallowing may be a symptom of tetanus.

Tetanus toxin is a neurotoxin, with an affinity for nerve cells. It works by blocking the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter with inhibitory effects. When GABA release is blocked, the muscles can go into spasm. Since tetanus toxin strikes short nerves first, the first sign of tetanus is usually stiffness and spasm in the muscles of the face. An alternate term for tetanus is “lockjaw,” referring to one of the hallmark spasms associated with the condition.

As tetanus toxin spreads through the body, more nerves are involved and additional muscles can go into spasm. This can be extremely painful for the patient. In some cases, spasms are so severe that the bones of the body are broken, especially long bones like the femur. The airways can close down, causing the patient to die as a result of not getting enough oxygen. Treatments for tetanus include administrations of antitoxin, supportive therapy, and antibiotics.

When the tetanus toxin is used in the production of a toxoid, it can become a valuable tool for medical treatment and disease prevention. Toxoids are treated bacterial toxins with reduced virulence. Vaccination for tetanus provides the immune system with some resistance. Vaccinations are recommended every 10 years or in situations where someone may be at risk of tetanus infection as a result of an injury.

The Clostridium genus contains a number of other species known to pose a threat to human health. Infections with these bacteria can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the species and the severity of the infection.

Victims who have sustained puncture wounds may be at risk for contracting tetanus.
Victims who have sustained puncture wounds may be at risk for contracting tetanus.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@simrin-- That's an excellent question.

An anti-toxin tetanus shot contains tetanus antibodies. Antibodies are what our body produces to fight an infection. Anti-toxins are the preferred treatment when a person or animal already has the tetanus bacteria. It will help the body fight the infection and the toxins released by it.

A toxoid shot contains the actual tetanus bacteria, but it's weakened so it can't cause an infection. It works by triggering a reaction by the immune system. This is the preferred treatment for those at risk of a tetanus infection. It provides long-term protection.


@ysmina-- What's tetanus anti-toxin? I received a tetanus vaccine, but it was called a tetanus toxoid vaccination.


We have cattle and goats on our farm and they all get a tetanus anti-toxin vaccination when they are babies. My dad has had issues with the vaccination in the past several years though. A couple of the goats had a mild allergic reaction and had to be taken to the vet this year. Last year, there was also a similar incident.

Is the risk of a tetanus infection really so high that we have to have all these animals vaccinated? It seems like they're at more risk from the side effects of the vaccination.

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