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

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.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
August 10, 2017