What Is Tetanus?
Tetanus is a serious
bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes muscles
throughout the body to tighten. Tetanus is also called lockjaw, because the
infection primarily causes muscle contractions in the jaw and neck, but it can
eventually spread to other parts of the body. Tetanus infection can be
life-threatening without treatment. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of tetanus
infections are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tetanus is a medical
emergency that requires immediate treatment in a hospital. Fortunately, tetanus
is preventable through the use of a vaccine. However, this vaccine does not
last forever. Tetanus booster shots are needed every 10 years to ensure
immunity. Because of the easy availability of the vaccine, tetanus is rare in
the United States. However, it is more common in other countries that do not
yet have strong immunization programs.
Bacteria called Clostridium
tetani cause tetanus. Spores of
the bacteria can be found in dust, dirt, and animal droppings. Spores
are small reproductive bodies produced by certain organisms. They are often
very resistant to harsh environmental conditions, like high heat.
A person can become
infected when these spores enter the bloodstream through a cut or deep wound. The
spores release the bacteria, which then spread throughout the body and produce
a toxin called tetanospasmin. This toxin is a poison that blocks the nerve
signals from your spinal cord to your muscles. This can lead to severe muscle
Tetanus infection has been
wounds from piercings, tattoos, or injection drug use
- animal bites
contaminated with dirt, feces, or saliva
- insect bites
- chronic sores
Tetanus is not contagious
from person to person. The infection occurs worldwide, but is more common in
hot, damp climates with rich soil, and in densely populated areas.
What Are the
Symptoms of Tetanus?
Tetanus affects the nerves
that control your muscles, which can lead to difficulty swallowing. You may
also experience spasms and stiffness in various muscles, especially those in
your jaw, abdomen, chest, back, and neck.
Other common tetanus
- fast heart
- high blood
The incubation period —
the time between exposure to the bacteria and the illness — is between three
and 21 days, but symptoms typically appear within 14 days
of initial infection. Infections that occur faster after exposure are typically
more severe and have a worse outcome (prognosis).
How Is Tetanus
Your doctor will perform a
physical examination to check for symptoms of tetanus, such as muscle stiffness
and painful spasms.
Unlike many other
diseases, tetanus is not generally diagnosed through laboratory tests. However,
your doctor may still perform lab tests to help rule out diseases with similar
symptoms, such as meningitis (a bacterial infection that affects the brain and spinal
cord) or rabies, a viral infection that causes brain swelling.
Your doctor will also base
a tetanus diagnosis on your immunization history. You’re at a higher risk
against tetanus if you haven’t been immunized or if you’re overdue for a
How Is Tetanus
Treatment will depend on
the severity of your symptoms.
Tetanus is typically
treated with a variety of therapies and medications, such as:
- cleaning the
wound to get rid of the source of the bacteria. In some cases, a surgical
procedure called debridement is used to remove dead or infected tissue.
- antibiotics like
penicillin to kill the bacteria in your system
- tetanus immune
globulin (TIG) to neutralize the toxins that the bacteria have created in your
relaxers to control muscle spasms
- a tetanus
vaccine given along with the treatment
If you have difficulty
swallowing and breathing, you may need a breathing tube or ventilator (a
machine that moves air in and out of the lungs).
What Are the Complications
Severe muscle spasms as a
result of tetanus can also cause serious health complications, such as:
problems due to spasms of the vocal cords (laryngospasm) and spasms of the
muscles that control breathing
- pneumonia (an
infection of the lungs)
- brain damage
due to lack of oxygen
- abnormal heart
- bone fractures
and fractures of the spine due to muscle spasms and convulsions
infections due to prolonged hospital stays
How Can I Prevent
Vaccination can prevent
tetanus infections, but only if you receive your booster shots on schedule. In
the United States, the tetanus vaccine is given to children as part of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis shot (also called the DTap shot). This is a three-in-one
vaccine that protects against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. However, this
doesn’t provide lifelong protection. Children need to also get a booster shot
called Tdap at 11 or 12 years of age. This vaccine protects against tetanus,
diphtheria, and whooping cough. Adults then need a booster vaccine called the
Td vaccine (for tetanus and diphtheria) every 10 years after that. Check with
your doctor if you aren’t sure if you’re up-to-date on your shots.
Proper treatment and
cleaning of wounds can also help prevent the infection. If you are injured
outside and think your injury has made contact with soil, call your healthcare
provider and ask about your risk of getting infected with tetanus.
What Is the
Outlook for Tetanus Patients?
Without treatment, tetanus
can be fatal. Death is more common in young children and the elderly. According
to the CDC,
in recent years roughly 11 percent of reported cases of tetanus have been
fatal. This was higher in people over the age of 60 years (18 percent) and
people who were unvaccinated (22 percent).
Prompt and proper
treatment will improve your outlook. Go to your doctor or emergency room right
away if you believe you may have tetanus. Even if you get tetanus, you can
still get it again someday if you’re not protected by the vaccine. The vaccine
is extremely effective, according to the CDC.
Reports of tetanus occurring in fully immunized people who have received a
vaccine or booster within the last 10 years are very rare.