What is Tetanus?

Tetanus, sometimes called lockjaw, is a dangerous condition triggered by a bacterial infection that leads to painful spasms in the muscles. These spasms are due to the various affects from the toxin produced by the bacteria, which travels through the blood stream and nerves to the patient’s central nervous system. Left untreated, the infection may ultimately cause death by suffocation.

Tetanus cannot be contracted from an infected person. However, it can be picked up though an open wound that comes into direct contact with an infected surface. The bacteria are typically found in dust, manure, and soil. The tiniest of scratches is sufficient to provide an opening for tetanus to enter the body, but it is far more likely to find its way in through deep puncture wounds. A common way people get the infection is by stepping on a nail that has been sitting in the dirt.

What are the Symptoms of Tetanus?

Symptoms of tetanus usually appear about a week after exposure and can last a few days, a few weeks, or longer. Besides the painful muscle contractions and spasms, people who become infected may also experience:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Dysfunction of the nervous system
  • High blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Stiff muscles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Drooling
  • Irritability
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache

Tetanus Causes

Tetanus occurs when bacteria called Clostridium tetani (C. tetani) creates powerful neurotoxins that can seriously harm the body. It cannot be transferred from one person to another, and is usually associated with wounds which have been sustained from dirty objects or surgical tools, or from animal bites.

Dirty needles, scalpels, scissors or other medical instruments can cause tetanus, which is why thorough sterilization is vital in medical environments. Newborn babies are at a particularly high risk; usually neonatal tetanus occurs when a dirty instrument is used to cut the umbilical cord after delivery.

Many people develop tetanus after sustaining an injury from a sharp, dirty object, for example a rusty nail or knife, or even wooden splinters. Deep puncture wounds tend to pose the most risk of tetanus, as wounds of this nature are more difficult to thoroughly clean and bacteria is therefore more likely to grow. However, even shallow wounds, such as scrapes or burns, can become infected with tetanus bacteria if they become contaminated with dirt or fecal matter.

How is Tetanus Treated?

Tetanus is an extremely rare disease in the United States today because it is easily preventable with a vaccine. There is no cure, so treatment is focused on controlling the symptoms and complications. Some patients will be able to manage the infection through the use of antibiotics and penicillin. Sedatives may be prescribed if the person is having trouble sleeping, and magnesium sulfate dietary supplements can also be beneficial. If the patient is experiencing difficulty breathing, they may need mechanical ventilation assistance. Other cases will require a tracheotomy or removal of infected tissue.

Tetanus Prevention

Tetanus vaccines can immunize people from the disease, but they don’t last forever and boosters are required. For people who regularly work in environments where the risk of tetanus is high, for example those who work in hospitals, with animals or in construction or manufacturing jobs with a high risk of puncture wounds, it is particularly important to keep up with booster vaccinations.

To prevent tetanus developing in wounds, it is vital that fresh wounds are treated immediately. Even minor breaks to the skin should be thoroughly cleaned as soon as possible, and protected from dirt until fully healed. With more serious wounds, dressings should be changed regularly in accordance with advice from your healthcare provider, and hands should always be washed before changing a dressing or examining a wound, whether it is your own or somebody else’s.