Written by Gretchen Holm | Published on July 17, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes muscles throughout the body to tighten. Tetanus is also commonly called lockjaw, because the infection primarily causes muscle contractions in the jaw and neck, but can eventually spread to other parts of the body. Without treatment, tetanus infection can be life-threatening. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of tetanus infections are fatal (CDC).

Fortunately, tetanus is preventable through the use of a vaccine. However, this vaccine does not last forever; booster shots are needed every 10 years to ensure immunity. Because of the easy availability of the vaccine, tetanus is rare in the United States. However, it is more common in other countries that do not yet have strong immunization programs.

What Causes Tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by bacteria called Clostridium tetani that can be found in dust, dirt, and animal droppings. A person can become infected when these bacteria enter the bloodstream through a cut or deep wound. Tetanus infection has also been associated with:

  • dental infections
  • burns
  • puncture wounds from piercings, tattoos, or injection drug use
  • animal bites

What Are the Symptoms of Tetanus?

Tetanus affects the nerves that control your muscles, which can lead to difficulty swallowing as well as spasms and stiffness in various muscles, especially those in your jaw, abdomen, chest, back, and neck.

You may experience several other symptoms, such as:

  • fast heart rate
  • fever
  • sweating
  • high blood pressure

Symptoms typically appear within eight days of initial infection (Mayo Clinic).

How Is Tetanus Diagnosed?

Unlike many other diseases, tetanus is not generally diagnosed through laboratory tests. However, your doctor may still perform lab tests to help rule out diseases with similar symptoms, such as meningitis (a bacterial infection that affects the brain and spinal cord) or rabies, a viral infection that causes brain swelling.

Your doctor will perform a physical examination to check for symptoms of tetanus, such as muscle stiffness and painful spasms.

Your doctor will also base a tetanus diagnosis on your immunization history. If you have not been immunized against tetanus or are overdue for a booster shot, you are at higher risk for tetanus.

How Is Tetanus Treated?

Treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms.

Tetanus is typically treated with a variety of therapies and medications, such as:

  • cleaning the wound to get rid of the source of the bacteria. In some cases, a surgical procedure called debridement is used to remove dead or infected tissue.
  • antibiotics such as penicillin to kill the bacteria in your system
  • tetanus immune globulin (TIG) to neutralize the toxins that the bacteria have created in your body
  • muscle relaxers to control muscle spasms

If you have difficulty swallowing and breathing, you may need a breathing tube or ventilator (a machine that moves air in and out of the lungs).

What Is the Outlook for Tetanus Patients?

Without treatment, approximately 25 percent of tetanus cases are fatal. Prompt and proper treatment lowers this number to less than 10 percent (NIH).

Severe muscle spasms as a result of tetanus can also cause serious health complications, such as:

  • breathing problems due to airway constriction
  • pneumonia (an infection of the lungs)
  • brain damage due to lack of oxygen
  • bone fractures

If you believe that you may have tetanus, go to your doctor or the emergency room right away to begin treatment.

How Can I Prevent Tetanus?

Vaccination can prevent tetanus infections, but only if you receive your booster shots on schedule. If you aren’t sure whether you are up-to-date on your shots, check with your doctor.

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