Tetanus is a serious disease caused by a bacterial toxin that affects your nervous system, leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly in your jaw and neck. Commonly known as “lockjaw,” tetanus can interfere with your ability to breathe and can be life-threatening.
If you’re up to date on your vaccinations, you should be protected from tetanus. If you’re not up to date and feel like you may have lockjaw, seek medical attention immediately.
Symptoms of tetanus can appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after the tetanus bacteria enter your body through a wound. The average incubation period is seven to 10 days. Common signs and symptoms of lockjaw include:
• Spasms and stiffness in your jaw muscles
• Stiffness of your neck muscles
• Difficulty swallowing
• Stiffness of your abdominal muscles
• Painful body spasms lasting for several minutes, typically triggered by minor things like a draft, loud noise, physical touch, or light
Possible other signs and symptoms include:
• Bloody stools
• Sore throat
• Elevated blood pressure
• Rapid heart rate
Doctors can diagnose tetanus by examining you for the signs and symptoms described above. There aren’t any hospital lab tests that can confirm tetanus.
Tetanus is caused by a toxin made by spores of bacteria, Clostridium tetani, found in soil, dust, and animal feces. When the spores enter a deep flesh wound, they grow into bacteria that can produce a powerful toxin called tetanospasmin, which impairs the nerves that control your muscles. The following things can increase your chances of getting tetanus:
• Failure to get vaccinated or to keep up with booster shots against tetanus
• An injury that gets tetanus spores into the wound
• A foreign body, like a nail or splinter
Tetanus cases have also been caused by:
• Puncture wounds
• Gunshot wounds
• Compound fractures
• Surgical wounds
• Injection drug use
• Animal or insect bites
• Infected foot ulcer
• Dental infections
• Infected umbilical stumps in babies born from inadequately vaccinated mothers
Most cases of tetanus occur in people who haven’t been vaccinated or didn’t have a booster shot within the last decade. For babies, the vaccine consists of five shots that are given to them when they are:
• 2 months
• 4 months
• 6 months
• 15-18 months
• 4-6 years
A booster is normally given between the ages of 11 and 18 years, and then another booster every 10 years. A Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) is approved for use in teens and adults under age 65 to ensure continuing protection against pertussis, too.
Treatment and Recovery
If you feel like you have the symptoms of tetanus, you need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Once you’re in the hospital, your doctors will treat you with the following:
• Immediate treatment with a medicine called human tetanus immune globulin (TIG)
• Aggressive wound care
• Drugs to control muscle spasms
• Tetanus vaccination
Depending on how serious the infection is, a machine to help you breathe may be required.
If you think you may have tetanus or have any questions about tetanus, its symptoms, and treatment, contact Baptist Health Urgent Care.