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Understanding Tetanus -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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How Do I Know If I Have Tetanus?

Tetanus can start from an injury such as a scratch, a cut or a bite from an animal or another person. The organism particularly lives in soil or fecal matter. It may take anywhere between one day to three weeks for symptoms to develop. Some affected people may experience only pain and tingling at the wound site and some spasms in muscles near the injury site to start with. As things progress, there can be stiffness of the jaw (called lockjaw) and neck muscles, irritability, and difficulty swallowing. There may be spasms in the facial muscles causing a strained smile appearance called risus sardonicus. The swallowing muscles can be affected causing food to stick or come back. If muscle spasms develop early -- within five days -- the chances of recovery are poor.

It is seldom possible to find either the bacterium or the toxin in a suspected tetanus patient, so diagnosis can be made only on the basis of clinical observations combined with an individual’s history of tetanus immunization.

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Understanding Tetanus -- the Basics

Tetanus is a dangerous nerve ailment caused by the toxin of a common bacterium, Clostridium tetani. Bacterial spores are found in soil -- most frequently in cultivated soil, least frequently in virgin soil. The spores can remain infectious for more than 40 years in soil. They also exist in environments as diverse as animal excrement, house dust, and the human colon. If the spores enter a wound that penetrates the skin and extends deeper than oxygen can reach, they germinate and produce a toxin that...

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What Are the Treatments for Tetanus?

If tetanus does develop, seek hospital treatment immediately. This includes wound care, a course of antibiotics, and an injection of tetanus antitoxin. You may receive medications such as chlorpromazine or diazepam to control muscle spasms, or a short-acting barbiturate for sedation. You may require the aid of an artificial respirator or other life-support measures during the several weeks needed for the disease to run its course.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Daniel Brennan, MD on March 12, 2014

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