Tetanus is infection of the nervous system with the potentially deadly bacteria Clostridium tetani (C. tetani).
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
You can get tetanus infection when the spores enter your body through an injury or wound. The spores release bacteria that spread in the body and make a poison called tetanospasmin. This poison blocks nerve signals from your spinal cord to your muscles, causing severe muscle spasms. The spasms can be so powerful that they tear the muscles or cause
The time between infection and the first sign of symptoms is about 7 to 21 days. Most cases of tetanus in the United States occur in those who have not been properly vaccinated against the disease.
Tetanus often begins with mild spasms in the jaw muscles (lockjaw). The spasms can also affect your chest, neck, back, and
Sometimes the spasms affect muscles that help with breathing, which can lead to breathing problems.
Prolonged muscular action causes sudden, powerful, and painful contractions of muscle groups. This is called tetany. These episodes can cause fractures and muscle tears.
Other symptoms include:
- Excessive sweating
Fever Hand or foot spasms
- Swallowing difficulty
- Uncontrolled urination or defecation
Signs and tests
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history. No specific lab test is available to determine the diagnosis of tetanus.
Tests may be used to rule out
Treatment may include:
Bedrest with a nonstimulating environment (dim light, reduced noise, and stable temperature)
Medicine to reverse the poison (tetanus immune globulin)
Muscle relaxers such as diazepam
Surgery to clean the wound and remove the source of the poison (debridement)
Breathing support with oxygen, a breathing tube, and a breathing machine may be necessary.
Without treatment, one out of four infected people die. The death rate for newborns with untreated tetanus is even higher. With proper treatment, less than 10% of infected patients die.
Wounds on the head or face seem to be more dangerous than those on other parts of the body. If the person survives the
Airway obstruction Respiratory arrest Heart failure Pneumonia
- Brain damage due to lack of oxygen during spasms
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider right away if you have an
You are injured outdoors.
The wound has been in contact with soil.
You have not received a tetanus booster (vaccine) within 5 years or you are not sure of your vaccination status.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have never been immunized against tetanus as an adult or child. Also call if your children have not been immunized, or if you are unsure of your tetanus immunization (vaccine) status.
Tetanus is completely preventable by being immunized (vaccinated). Immunization usually protects against tetanus infection for 10 years.
In the United States, immunizations begin in infancy with the
Older teenagers and adults who get injuries, especially puncture-type wounds, should get a tetanus booster if it has been more than 10 years since the last booster.
If you have been injured outside or in any way that makes contact with soil likely, contact your health care provider about your risk of getting tetanus infection. Injuries and wounds should be thoroughly cleaned right away. If the tissue of the wound is dying, a doctor will need to remove the tissue.
You may have heard that you can get tetanus if you are injured by a rusty nail. This is true only if the nail is dirty and has the tetanus bacteria on it. It is the dirt on the nail, not the rust, that carries the risk of tetanus.