A wound infection, caused by a bacterial toxin, that produces severe muscle spasms
Tetanus is caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, which lives in soil and in the intestines of humans and other animals. If the bacteria enter a wound, they multiply, and an infection may develop that acts on the nerves controlling muscle activity. The condition, also called lockjaw, is rare in developed countries because most people have been immunized.
The symptoms of tetanus usually appear 3–21 days after infection. Fever, headache, and muscle stiffness in the jaw, arms, neck, and back are typical. As the condition progresses, painful muscle spasms may develop. In some people, the muscles of the throat or chest wall are affected, leading to breathing difficulties and possible suffocation.
Diagnosis of tetanus is based on details of the injury and on the symptoms. The disease needs immediate treatment in hospital with antitoxin injections, antibiotics, and sedatives (see Antianxiety drugs) to relieve muscle spasm. Mechanical ventilation may be needed to aid breathing. If treated promptly, most people make a complete recovery, otherwise tetanus is usually fatal.
To reduce the risk of tetanus, you should thoroughly clean wounds and treat them with antiseptic. Wounds contaminated with soil or manure and deep wounds should be seen by a doctor immediately. Anybody who has not had the full course of vaccinations should also see a doctor.
Vaccination against tetanus, usually started in early childhood (see Routine immunizations), is highly effective. A person who has had a total of 5 injections is likely to be immune for life, but booster doses may be required after a dirty wound or if travelling in an area with poor medical services.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.