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Tetanus - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms?

Tetanus symptoms appear slowly and get worse over time. The time it takes for symptoms to appear after a cut or injury ranges from days to months. In most cases, symptoms of tetanus appear within 14 days.

Tetanus symptoms often begin with a headache and trouble opening your mouth (lockjaw). You also may have trouble swallowing and/or a stiff neck, back, or shoulders.

As the toxin spreads, it can be deadly. It can cause problems with your blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause severe and painful muscle spasms in your neck, arms, legs, and belly. If spasms continue and get worse, they can break bones, including the spine.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

There is no lab test for tetanus. A doctor can usually diagnose tetanus after asking questions about your symptoms and past health and doing a physical exam. Because other problems can cause muscle spasms like tetanus, your doctor will do tests to make sure your symptoms are not caused by something else.

Your doctor will do tests to decide how to treat your symptoms. For example, he or she may order a blood test (arterial blood gases) to see how well you are breathing.

How is it treated?

If you are infected with tetanus, you will need to stay in a hospital so you can get medicines and fluids to control muscle spasms and pain. You also may need treatment to help you breathe. Your doctor will fully clean any wound or cut to remove bacteria. Cleaning the affected area stops bacteria from making toxin. Treatment also includes:

  • Antibiotics. These medicines kill bacteria.
  • Tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG). This is a protein that helps your body's immune system find and destroy bacteria. TIG boosts your immunity while your body fights the infection.
  • Medicines to decrease muscle spasms. You also may be treated in an intensive care unit (ICU) with medicines that paralyze your muscles for a while until your body begins to recover. In this case, you will need treatment to help with breathing and other body functions.

After you've had tetanus, you are not immune to the disease. You could get infected again. So keep getting routine tetanus shots after you get better.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 14, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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