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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust, and the bowel movements of some animals and humans. The bacteria produce a toxin that damages nerves. This causes severe muscle spasms. Left untreated, tetanus can be life-threatening.

What are the signs and symptoms of tetanus?

You may have stiff and weak muscles only in the area of the wound. This is called localized tetanus. Symptoms may go away without treatment, or they may spread. Infection that spreads is called generalized. You may develop any of the following within days or weeks of the infection:

  • Lockjaw (a muscle spasm in the jaw and neck that locks your jaw closed)
  • Muscle spasms that are severely painful, often triggered by noise, light, or touch
  • Rigid facial muscles, or raised eyebrows with lips pulled into a grin
  • Rigid abdomen, arm, and leg muscles
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Feeling restless or irritable, or a fast heartbeat or breathing
  • A headache or seizures
  • Sweating, trouble urinating, or a low fever

What increases my risk for tetanus?

The bacteria often enter the body through a wound. The following can increase your risk for tetanus:

  • Lack of immunization against tetanus, or lack of tetanus booster shots
  • An acute or chronic wound, such as a burn, crush injury, or puncture wound
  • An unclean wound, or a clean wound that scraped off the top layer of your skin
  • Use of injected drugs, or use of a needle that was not sterilized, such as during tattooing or piercing
  • A bone fracture that caused bone to break through your skin
  • In women, childbirth or termination of a pregnancy
  • Surgery or a dental procedure
  • An insect bite

How is tetanus diagnosed and treated?

Your healthcare provider will examine your wound and ask about your symptoms. Tell him if the wound was not cleaned immediately or you saw dirt or other objects in the wound. No tests are available to check for tetanus. Your healthcare provider will look for certain signs or symptoms, such as lockjaw, to help diagnose tetanus. If the infection becomes generalized, you will need to be treated in a hospital. You will be kept in a dark, quiet room to prevent muscle spasms. You may also need the following:

  • Medicines may be given to stop or prevent seizures and muscle spasms. Antitoxin may also be given to stop the toxin from spreading in your body. Medicine may be given to fight a bacterial infection or to control pain. Your healthcare provider may also give you a dose of the tetanus vaccine.
  • Surgery may be used to remove tissue affected by tetanus. Debridement is a type of surgery used to clean a wound and remove dead tissue. Objects such as dirt or glass will also be removed.

What can I do to prevent tetanus?

  • Get the tetanus vaccine as directed. The tetanus vaccine is given to children in several doses. A booster dose is given to adults every 10 years. A tetanus infection will not make you immune from the tetanus toxin. You will need a dose after you have a wound if you did not get a booster in the past 5 years. If you are pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider about the vaccine. It is given during the second half of pregnancy to prevent tetanus from passing to your baby during birth.
  • Clean every wound immediately. Apply pressure to the wound to stop any bleeding. Clean the wound with soap and water. Remove dirt or other objects from the wound. Cover the wound with a clean bandage. Change the bandage every day and if it gets wet or dirty.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing.
  • Your heartbeat is very fast or not regular.
  • You have muscle spasms in your face.
  • You start to feel muscle cramps or spasms near a wound.
  • You have a wound that is large or cannot be cleaned.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have an open wound or a puncture wound.
  • You do not know if your tetanus vaccines are current.
  • You need a tetanus booster shot.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.