Tetanus (Lockjaw) – Causes, symptoms and diagnosis

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What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a severe bacterial infection that is commonly known as lockjaw. Clostridium tetani are the bacteria that cause the infection. A person may be infected by bacteria after being cut with a contaminated object. The bacteria produce toxins that affect the brain and nervous system. It can also lead to stiffness in the muscles, severe breathing difficulties and can ultimately be fatal.

What causes the disease Tetanus? 

Tetanus is caused by the invasion of the bacterium Clostridium tetani through the skin or mucosal wound into the human body. People are usually infected by Tetanus when bacteria enter the human body through contaminated wounds. Tetanus may follow wounds caused by dirty fingernails, knives, tools, wood chips, animal bites, etc. Besides, surgery, burns, frostbites, ear and tooth infections, miscarriage and pregnancy can also lead to Tetanus. Deep puncture wounds may also cause Tetanus.

Clostridium tetani are slender and rod-shaped. It exists commonly around us in the natural environment. When the bacteria enter the human body, their spores grow in large numbers in an anaerobic environment, producing toxins. The toxins are transmitted through blood and lymphatic vessels and affect the central nervous system, resulting in muscle stiffness.

What are the apparent signs and symptoms of Tetanus?

Different forms of Tetanus could lead to various symptoms:

Local Tetanus: A person would have sustained contractions in certain injury areas, which can last for weeks and gradually subside. Local Tetanus is generally mild and only 1% of cases cause death.

Cephalic Tetanus: It usually causes facial nerve involvement. The primary symptoms include facial twitching and spasm and neck and jaw stiffness.

Generalised Tetanus: The first and foremost symptom is trismus or lockjaw, followed by neck stiffness, difficulty swallowing and stiffness of abdominal muscles. Patients may also experience body temperature increase, sweating and increased blood pressure. Spasms may occur frequently and usually last for minutes each time. It takes several months for patients to fully recover in most cases.

  • In severe cases, Tetanus may also lead to severe complications.
  • Breathing problems are likely to appear because of the spasm of the muscles of respiration.
  • Brain damage may be caused due by the lack of oxygen.
  • Sustained contractions may bring about fractures of the spine and bones.
  • If the lungs are infected, there is a possibility of pneumonia.
  • Besides, high blood pressure may occur due to the abnormality of the autonomic nervous system.

How can you treat Tetanus?

Prevention would be the essential step to avoid Tetanus infection. When a person is infected by Tetanus, it is necessary to take immediate treatment, which involves treating the wound, course of antibiotics, etc. In case of a minor wound, you should first control bleeding. To clean the wound, you should rinse the wound thoroughly with running water and use soap to clean the area around the wound. You can use an antibiotic cream that can inhibit bacteria growth and infection. Also, remember to cover the wound and change the dressing at least once a day or whenever required.

The following are the ways to prevent and treat Tetanus,

  • Clean the wound to prevent the growth of the Tetanus spores.
  • Remove the necrotic tissue, foreign materials and dirt. In some cases, patients were treated with debridement, which is a surgery to remove dead tissues from the body.
  • Antibiotics like penicillin to kill the bacteria in your body
  • Vaccines
  • Sedatives to control muscle spasms
  • Other drugs which are used to control involuntary muscle activities, including magnesium sulfate
  • In a severe condition, the patient needs to stay in the ICU and take necessary treatments advised by the doctor.

An important step in taking a precautionary measure is ensuring that you are vaccinated. Children should be provided with the vaccine for Tetanus as advised by the doctor at the right intervals. Adults also require Tetanus shots since people are not permanently immune to Tetanus.

Vaccines may also bring side effects like headaches, stomachaches, fever, and vomiting. A few people may also have allergic reactions like hives, swelling of the mouth, difficulty in breathing, and even anaphylactic shock after receiving the vaccine. To avoid such situations, it is recommended to take a skin test before being vaccinated.

Some facts on Tetanus

  • According to statistics by WHO, about 10-20% of Tetanus cases cause death, mostly due to asphyxia caused by muscle spasms.
  • Tetanus can reoccur, which means that people are not immune to Tetanus forever after being vaccinated and catching it again.
  • There is no treatment for Tetanus, but following preventive measures like taking vaccines can prevent the infection.
  • Tetanus can also resolve naturally.
  • Newborns are likely to be infected by Tetanus when the umbilical cord wound stump is not properly cared for after birth.

In Conclusion

The best practice to prevent Tetanus is to be cautious and we recommend vaccines for infants, children, teens and adults to prevent Tetanus. It is always best to consult your doctor and get immediate treatment when there are symptoms of Tetanus.


The Information including but not limited to text, graphics, images and other material contained on this blog are intended for education and awareness only. No material on this blog is intended to be a substitute for professional medical help including diagnosis or treatment. It is always advisable to consult medical professional before relying on the content. Neither the Author nor Star Health and Allied Insurance Co. Ltd accepts any responsibility for any potential risk to any visitor/reader.

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