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What kills tetanus bacteria?

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a severe disease that is caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria that causes tetanus is called Clostridium tetani. This rod-shaped bacterium produces a potent toxin that affects the nervous system, leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly of the jaw and neck muscles. Understanding what kills C. tetani is important for preventing and treating tetanus infections.

How do tetanus infections occur?

Tetanus bacteria are present in soil, dust, and manure and can enter the body through broken skin, usually through injuries contaminated with dirt, feces, or saliva. Wounds that are especially prone to infection include:

  • Puncture wounds
  • Burns
  • Crush injuries
  • Injection drug sites

The spores can germinate into active bacteria when conditions are favorable, such as in necrotic tissue. The growing bacteria produce toxins that travel through nerves to the spinal cord and brain, causing muscle spasms and lockjaw.

Why is tetanus so dangerous?

Tetanus has a very high fatality rate if left untreated. According to the CDC, about 10-20% of reported tetanus cases result in death. Tetanus is dangerous for several reasons:

  • The tetanus neurotoxin is very potent and deadly even in tiny amounts.
  • Bacteria deep in wounds and tissue are difficult to eradicate.
  • Tetanus spores can survive hostile conditions and are hard to kill.
  • Tetanus lacks herd immunity as many adults do not maintain up to date vaccinations.

Methods that effectively kill tetanus bacteria

While tetanus is very dangerous, the good news is that several methods are highly effective at killing both the active bacteria and the spores that enable the disease to spread and persist in the environment:

Oxidizing agents

Oxidizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide, iodine, and chlorine can kill tetanus bacteria and spores. Diluted concentrations of these chemicals are often used to clean wounds at risk of contamination. They work by oxidizing key cellular components of the bacteria.


Alcohols such as ethanol, isopropanol, and methanol are very effective antiseptics against pathogens like C. tetani. A 70% alcohol solution applied thoroughly to a wound can kill tetanus bacteria through protein denaturation and cell membrane disruption.

Boiling water

Exposing tetanus spores to boiling water for 10 minutes or longer can kill the spores and prevent germination. This method is recommended for disinfecting objects that may harbor tetanus bacteria.


Autoclaving, which uses pressurized steam, is a common method of sterilizing medical equipment and killing all bacteria and spores. Temperatures of at least 121°C maintained for 15-20 minutes are sufficient to kill tetanus bacteria and spores.


Incinerating contaminated objects at very high temperatures also destroys tetanus spores. This is the preferred disposal method for materials that cannot be adequately disinfected by other means.


Household bleach containing sodium hypochlorite kills tetanus bacteria and spores, especially at higher concentrations. Soaking contaminated objects in undiluted bleach for at least 10 minutes can be an effective disinfection method.


Tetanus is caused by a toxin, so antibiotics are not effective at controlling disease symptoms. However, antibiotics such as metronidazole can halt tetanus toxin production and prevent further spread of infection when administered early. Penicillin G and doxycycline may also exhibit some toxin-neutralizing effects.

Preventing tetanus infection

In addition to emergency treatment of wounds, the most important step in preventing tetanus infections is maintaining up to date tetanus vaccinations. The CDC recommends the following vaccine schedule:

Age Recommended vaccine
Infants & children DTaP vaccine at 2, 4, 6, and 15-18 months old. DTaP again at 4-6 years old.
Older children & teens Tdap vaccine at 11-12 years old, with a Td booster every 10 years after.
Adults Tdap vaccine once, followed by a Td booster every 10 years.

Pregnant women should get the Tdap vaccine during every pregnancy to protect their newborn. Adults who have never been vaccinated should get three doses – the first two doses 4 weeks apart followed by a third dose 6-12 months after the second dose.

Treating tetanus infections

If tetanus infection occurs, early treatment is critical to halt toxin production and neutralize traces of toxin before extensive damage occurs. Treatment normally requires:

  • Wound debridement to remove necrotic tissue where bacteria may reside.
  • Administration of tetanus immune globulin (TIG) to neutralize unbound tetanus toxin.
  • Intravenous antibiotics, often metronidazole, penicillin, doxycycline, or clindamycin.
  • Medications to control muscle spasms such as diazepam.
  • Breathing support if needed.

With intensive care, the mortality rate of tetanus can be reduced to less than 10%. But full recovery often takes months and may require prolonged rehabilitation to regain strength and mobility.

Alternative medicine approaches

Some alternative medicine practitioners advocate using herbs, essential oils, or homeopathic remedies to treat tetanus infections. However, there is no scientific evidence that these methods are effective. The extreme potency of tetanus toxin requires proven medical treatments to neutralize the toxin and halt neurologic damage.


In summary, tetanus is a severe bacterial disease that is often fatal without proper treatment. Thankfully, tetanus bacteria and spores can be readily killed through several methods including oxidizing agents, alcohols, boiling water, autoclaving, incinerating, and bleach. Preventing tetanus through proper vaccinations is key, butprompt wound care and medical treatment greatly improves outcomes in tetanus infections. Maintaining updated tetanus shots and carefully cleaning even minor wounds remains imperative to avoiding this devastating illness.