Tetanus is also called lockjaw because it affects your nervous system causing painful muscle contractions, especially in the jaw muscles, making it difficult to move your jaws. The tetanus bacteria is common in the environment and can be found in soil, dust, and manure.
It exists in the form of spores that are dormant but becomes active upon entering the human body through cuts and wounds. Luckily, the tetanus vaccine prevents the bacteria from infecting humans and the few infections that are reported in the United States are among people who have never been vaccinated for tetanus.1
How You Could Get A Tetanus Infection
Tetanus infection is caused by a bacterium known as Clostridium tetani. Though this bacteria is quite common, it can cause an infection only if it enters your bloodstream, which means it needs an entry point to get into your body. These entry points could be skin ruptures or wounds.
Some of the common ways of infection are wounds that are contaminated with spit, dirt, or feces (poop). Puncture wounds caused by a pin, nail, or needle could also become an entry point for the bacteria. Other causes include burns, crash injuries, and injuries with dead tissue. In rare cases, a tetanus infection can also be caused by dental infections, insect bites, surgical procedures, and injections.
Symptoms Of Tetanus
When the tetanus bacteria enters your body, it is usually in the form of spores. Once inside your body, the spores grow into bacteria which can produce a powerful toxin known as tetanospasmin. This toxin is responsible for affecting your nervous system and causing muscles spasms. Depending on the kind of wound, it usually takes between 3 and 21 days for a tetanus infection to manifest its symptoms. Some of the common symptoms are:
- Muscle spasms, usually in the stomach
- Stiffening of jaw muscles
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Pain and stiffness in the body
- Blood pressure changes and a fast heart rate
Is Tetanus Fatal?
Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection and can be fatal if left untreated. The tetanus toxin can spread throughout the nervous system affecting muscles that are vital to breathing. In severe cases, patients are unable to breathe and might have to be hooked to life support.
Though there are no lab tests that can confirm tetanus, doctors can usually diagnose the infection based on the symptoms and the patient’s history. Treatment involves neutralizing the toxins, administration of antibiotics, and drugs to control muscle spasms. Fortunately, tetanus is not contagious and does not spread through the air or by being in contact with a patient.
Making Sure You Never Get Tetanus
Vaccination: Getting yourself vaccinated is your best defense against a tetanus infection. If you have never had a tetanus vaccine, talk to your doctor about getting one right away. Another important detail to remember is that the vaccine does not last a lifetime. Even if you have been vaccinated before, booster shots are recommended once every 10 years for people of all ages.
First Aid: Wound care also plays an important part in preventing a tetanus infection. Immediate and good wound care can prevent not only tetanus but also several other infections. Any cut or puncture wound such as the ones caused by a nail or pin must be treated immediately with first aid. Even non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes, or any break in the skin needs to be treated with care.
Modern science has ensured that the average number of tetanus infections in the United States is just 30. However, if it’s been a long time since you have had a tetanus shot, you are vulnerable to an infection. Talk to your healthcare provider about your medical history and when you last received your tetanus vaccine. If you are due for a shot, a small prick can save you from a pretty nasty infection.