Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 1, 2016

Tetanus is a formal name for the condition that is known as lockjaw. The reason it is called lockjaw is tetanus causes muscle spasms around the jaw and the neck. Although tetanus is rarely found in the United States, it is a common condition that poses serious health threats in developing parts of the world. If a person contracts tetanus, there can be dire health consequences including death.


Definition & Facts

Tetanus can enter a person's body through a tiny scratch or puncture and can take up to several weeks after infection for symptoms to emerge. When a person is infected by tetanus, it becomes difficult for them to speak or move the mouth area. Approximately 40 to 60 people contract tetanus in the United States each year, and it only affects people who are not protected by tetanus vaccinations. Since its discovery in 1884, there has been a large amount of research that has led to vaccinations and decreased the threat of tetanus in many parts of the world.

Symptoms & Complaints

Tetanus is a condition that has a long incubation period. In most cases, a person's body will exhibit the symptoms of tetanus in about 8 days. In a small number of cases, it can take a few weeks for the symptoms to emerge. Common symptoms include:

At the first sign of these symptoms, an infected person should seek treatment for tetanus. If left untreated, tetanus can cause serious complications. Muscle spasms can cause broken bones. People may also become disabled if they are immobile for a long time in the ICU during treatment. Symptoms associated with tetanus require prompt medical attention and care.


Tetanus is a bacterium that requires a small opening to get into a person's body. In contaminated dust, soil and manure, there is a strain of the bacterium that is known as Clostridium tetani. A person or animal comes in contact with tetanus as the result of a small cut, flesh wound or puncture from an object that is infected by the bacteria.

When the tetanus bacterium enters a person's body, it releases a highly toxin poison that attacks the nervous system. As the poison travels throughout the body, it causes symptoms, nerve damage and fractures.

Diagnosis & Tests

After a person seeks emergency care as a result of exhibiting the symptoms, the doctor will assess the symptoms using a physical examination. After the examination has been conducted, the doctor will determine whether tetanus is the cause of the symptoms. Doctors must rely on physical examinations because there are no laboratory tests or formal diagnostic tools that will detect the presence of tetanus. Doctors will admit patients on the slightest speculation of tetanus.

Treatment & Therapy

When a person is diagnosed with tetanus, the doctor must prescribe a treatment quickly. Any delay in treatment can have dire consequences for the patient. Doctors and health professionals have four primary goals in mind as they work to get the tetanus infection under control.

  • The production of the tetanus must be stopped within the wound.
  • The wound must be cleaned to get rid of spores and prevent further germination of tetanus.
  • Tetanus bacteria must be neutralized.
  • Complications and symptoms that result from tetanus must be effectively managed.

After the initial diagnosis, patients are admitted to ICU in the hospital. If a hospital is not equipped with an ICU, the patient will be transported to another facility immediately. While patients are in the intensive care unit, they will receive tetanus immunoglobulin which is an antibody that helps the body fight off tetanus. Muscle relaxants may also be prescribed to reduce spasms. Antibiotics such as diazepam may also be prescribed to fight the infection.

In severe cases in which the patients' spasms render them unable to breathe or eat, they may need nutritional and breathing support such as tube feeding and the use of a respirator until the body heals. It is important for patients to remain in a quiet room that does not have any stimuli such as noise and light. During the recovery phase, patients are sensitive, and the smallest amount of stimulation can cause muscle spasms and seizures. It can take many months for a patient to recover from a tetanus infection.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The only way for a person to be protected against the tetanus bacterium is by getting a series of vaccines that prevent infection. Without vaccinations, people are susceptible to getting infected by tetanus.

There are 3 types of tetanus shots that are available to prevent the tetanus bacterium. DTaP vaccine is the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccination. This vaccine is administered to children who are at least 2 months old. These primary vaccinations will be given to children up until the age of 6 years old. There are 5 shots that are administered in this series of vaccinations.

Tdap vaccine is a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine that is administered to children ages 11 and 12 and pregnant women. This vaccination is administered to adults who did not receive the initial vaccination as children. Td vaccine is the third vaccine that is administered to combat tetanus. This shot is administered to people as a booster shot every 10 years.

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