What is it?
Tetanus is a serious bacterial disease caused by a toxin that leads to stiffness of your jaw muscles and other muscles. Tetanus can cause severe muscle spasms, make breathing difficult and, ultimately, threaten your life.
Spores of the tetanus bacteria, Clostridium tetani, usually are found in the soil, but can occur virtually anywhere. If deposited in a wound, the bacteria can produce a toxin that interferes with the nerves controlling your muscles.
Treatment for tetanus is available, but the process is lengthy and not uniformly effective. Tetanus may be fatal despite treatment. The best defense against tetanus is preventing it by getting a tetanus shot and by properly caring for wounds.
Signs and symptoms of tetanus may appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after tetanus bacteria enter your body through a wound. The incubation period for the disease is usually between three days and three weeks, with an average of eight days.
Signs and symptoms of tetanus may include:
- Spasms of your jaw, neck and other muscles. As the toxin spreads to nerves, your face and jaw muscles may be affected by strong spasms. Spasms can also affect muscles in your chest, abdomen and back.
- Stiffness of your jaw, neck and other muscles. This is why tetanus is commonly referred to as lockjaw. Spasms and stiffness of your jaw and neck may lead to difficulty swallowing. Stiffness can also affect your chest, abdominal and back muscles.
- Difficulty breathing. Severe spasms can affect respiratory muscles and make it difficult to breathe.
Other signs and symptoms can include:
- Muscular irritability
The bacteria that cause tetanus, Clostridium tetani, are found in soil, dust and animal feces. When they enter a deep flesh wound, spores of the bacteria may produce a powerful toxin, tetanospasmin, which acts on various areas of your nervous system. The effect of the toxin on your nerves can cause muscle stiffness and spasms — the major signs of tetanus.
Doctors diagnose tetanus based on a physical exam and the signs and symptoms of muscle spasms, stiffness and pain. Laboratory tests generally aren't helpful for diagnosing tetanus.