Tetanus

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria (Clostridium tetani) that often leads to painful muscle spasms. Tetanus is sometimes called lockjaw, because the jaw muscles are commonly affected in the early stages. This bacteria lives in soil and can enter the body through breaks in the skin. This is a rare condition that can affect any person who is not vaccinated against tetanus, and tends to most commonly occur in older people who have not kept up with booster vaccinations. The typical symptoms of this condition are muscle stiffness, fever, sweating and painful muscular spasms. The diagnosis can be made based on the symptoms and physical exam in a person who is at risk. Treatment includes antibiotics and antibodies (proteins which fight infection) against the tetanus bacteria and the tetanus toxin. Tetanus can be a life-threatening condition if not treated appropriately.

Risks

Tetanus is a condition caused by a bacteria called Clostridium. This bacteria is found in soil and animal manure. It enters the body through cuts, scrapes, body piercings, deep wounds and other injuries which break the skin. When in the body, the bacteria begins to grow, and produces a toxin (a harmful substance) which affects the nerves and muscles, causing the symptoms of tetanus. Tetanus can affect any person who is not vaccinated, but tends to most commonly affect older people, who have not kept up with booster vaccinations. Since routine vaccination was introduced, tetanus has become an uncommon condition.

Symptoms

The typical symptoms are muscle stiffness, fever, sweating and painful muscle spasms. These muscle spasms can cause swallowing and breathing problems. Other symptoms may include a racing heart, dizziness, drooling and a loss of control of the bladder and bowel.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis may be made based on the symptoms and physical examination in a person who has had an injury, or who is known to be at risk of tetanus. Some tests might be done to rule out other possible causes.

Treatment

Tetanus is treated with antibiotics and antibodies (proteins which fight infection) against the tetanus bacteria and the tetanus toxin. If the tetanus is beginning to cause breathing or blood pressure problems, these also require immediate treatment. Other treatments may include muscle-relaxing medications. In case of severe infection, patients are usually admitted to intensive care unit (ICU) and get support to breathing with the help of a ventilator.

Prevention

Tetanus can be prevented by vaccination. Booster vaccinations are needed every 10 years. People who receive an injury that breaks the skin and who are not sure if they are immune to tetanus should wash the wound thoroughly, and see a doctor in order to receive a booster vaccination.

Other names for tetanus

  • lockjaw