Tetanus

(Lockjaw)

Definition

Tetanus (also known as lockjaw) is an infection marked by prolonged muscle spasms. The infection creates a toxin that affects the nervous system. It can be fatal if left untreated.
Nervous System
CNS and PNS
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Tetanus is caused by specific bacteria that is found in soil, dust, or manure. It enters your body through a break in the skin. Once inside the body, the bacteria create a toxin. This toxin causes tetanus.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of tetanus include:
  • Lack of tetanus vaccination, regular booster shots, or not updating tetanus vaccination in timely manner
  • IV drug use
  • Skin sores or wounds
  • Burns
  • Exposure of open wounds to soil or animal feces

Symptoms

Tetanus may cause:
  • Headache
  • Stiff jaw muscles or neck muscles
  • Drooling or trouble swallowing
  • Muscle spasticity or rigidity
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Pain or tingling at a wound site
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart beat that is too fast or too slow

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is mainly based on the medical history.Your doctor may test the wound. A culture will grow the bacteria causing the infection. Culture results are not always accurate for tetanus.

Treatment

Treatment may include:
  • Hospitalization—to manage complications of the infection
  • Opening and cleaning the wound—entire wounded area may need to be surgically removed
  • Antibiotics to fight the bacteria
  • Tetanus immune globulin—antibodies against tetanus that help neutralize the tetanus toxin
  • A tetanus shot—if your tetanus vaccine is not up to date
  • Medication to treat symptoms—may include antiseizure medication or muscle relaxants
Tetanus can cause severe problems with breathing or swallowing. A breathing tube may be inserted in the throat. This will help keep the airway open until you heal. A surgical procedure called a tracheotomy may be done. This will provide an open airway if your upper airway cannot be accessed.

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