What is tetanus?
Tetanus refers to a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes painful muscle contractions or tightening of the muscles, especially in the jaw or the neck muscles. It is also called lockjaw. While tetanus mostly causes muscle contractions in the jaw and the neck, it can potentially spread to several parts of the body.
The infection is a medical emergency and calls for immediate treatment in a hospital. When left without treatment, tetanus infection can be life-threatening.
There is a widely available vaccine for preventing tetanus. However, the vaccine does not provide lifelong protection. Hence, booster shots are required every 10 years to make sure of immunity against this deadly infection.
The incubation period of tetanus after the exposure to the bacteria can be between 3 to 21 days. Generally, the onset of the illness can take place in 7 to 10 days after the initial infection. However, in some cases, it can take months.
A patient with a shorter incubation period, tends to have a more serious infection. Primary tetanus symptoms include:
- Stiffness and spasms in your jaw muscles and neck muscles
- Stiffness and spasms in the abdomen, chest, and back
- Difficulty in swallowing
Other common signs and symptoms of tetanus include:
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
Who is at risk?
Tetanus risk factors include:
- An injury which allows tetanus spores to enter into the wound
- A foreign body, like a splinter or nail
- Failure to get vaccinated with tetanus booster shots
Wounds that commonly develop tetanus are:
- Crush injuries
- Dead tissue injuries
- Puncture wounds from tattoos, piercings, injection drug use, or injury
- Wounds contaminated with saliva, feces, and dirt
- Animal or insect bites
- Dental infections
- Chronic infections and sores
Clostridium tetani bacteria are the major tetanus cause. Small reproductive bodies or spores of this bacteria can exist in dirt, dust, and animal dropping.
The bacteria can enter the bloodstream of a person through a wound and infect them. After the entrance, the bacteria spores spread to the central nervous system and produce tetanospasmin. This toxin is poisonous and blocks the nerve signals from the spinal cord to reach the muscles leading to severe muscle spasms.
How is tetanus diagnosed?
The doctor will begin tetanus diagnosis by performing a physical examination of the symptoms of tetanus like painful spasms and muscle stiffness.
While there isn’t any tetanus test to help diagnose the infection, the doctor may perform lab tests to rule out the possibility of other diseases with similar symptoms. These include rabies and meningitis.
Most importantly, the doctor will make a tetanus diagnosis based on the immunization history of the patient. A person is at a higher risk of infection if they haven’t been vaccinated against tetanus or are overdue for a booster shot.
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How is tetanus treated?
Tetanus cure is done depending on the severity of the symptoms of the infection. Tetanus treatment is typically done using a variety of therapies and tetanus medicine. These include:
- Antibiotics like penicillin to kill the bacteria
- Tetanus immune globulin (TIG) for neutralizing the toxins created by the bacteria in the body
- Muscle relaxers to control muscle spasms
- Cleaning the wound to remove the source of bacteria
- A tetanus vaccine along with tetanus treatment
In some cases, tetanus treatment is done by a surgical procedure called debridement which involves the removal of dead or infected tissue. If the patient is facing difficulty in breathing and swallowing, they may need a breathing tube or a ventilator.
How can tetanus be prevented?
Tetanus prevention can be done easily and effectively by taking the tetanus vaccine.
The tetanus vaccine is generally given to children as a part of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis shot, also known as the DTaP shot. This vaccine and protects against
- Diphtheria, a throat, and respiratory infection
- Pertussis, or whooping cough
The vaccine is a series of 5 shots and is usually given to children between the age of 2 months and 6 years.
The vaccine does not provide lifelong protection and it is recommended for children to get a booster shot at 11 or 12 years of age and adults to get the booster vaccine called Td vaccine for tetanus and diphtheria every 10 years after that.It is vital to check with your doctor about your immunization graph.
Proper cleaning of wounds and treatment can also help in preventing the infection.