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Tetanus - Topic Overview

What causes tetanus?

The bacteria that cause tetanus are called Clostridium tetani. They are usually found in dirt and soil, most often in areas with animal waste such as farms and ranches. These bacteria typically enter the body through a wound, cut, or splinter. They can also enter the body through an unclean injection, such as when a person injects an illegal drug.

The bacteria grow best when they are not around oxygen. The deeper and narrower the wound, the less oxygen there is around it, so tetanus is more likely. For example, the bacteria can thrive in a puncture wound from a dirty nail. The dirtier the wound, the higher the risk of getting tetanus. But tetanus can also grow in a clean wound.

Tetanus is not contagious, so you can't get it from a person who has it.

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.

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