Tetanus is a disease that affects the nervous system, characterized by painful muscle spasms, especially those of the jaw and neck. It is caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria, which produce a toxin that can impair the nerves that control muscles. The spores of these bacteria are plentiful in the environment and affect humans when they get trapped in dirty wounds and release toxins in the body.
At the onset of tetanus—after about 7 to 10 days—patients usually develop headaches and spasms in the jaw muscles. This can lead to “lockjaw,” or a tightening of the jaw, until the patient can no longer open his or her mouth or swallow. As the disease progresses, spasms occur in other muscles, and patients sometimes experience muscle dysfunction that resembles seizures. Infections should be treated immediately. Tetanus can be fatal, but an extensive vaccination effort worldwide has reduced its occurrence significantly.
There is no cure for tetanus but medication can be used to ease its symptoms. Antibiotics are prescribed to fight the tetanus bacteria, and antitoxins can fight toxins that have not yet bonded to and affected nervous tissue. Sedatives and other medications can help regulate muscle activity and prevent spasms.
Tetanus can easily be prevented by the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine, which is typically administered to young children. Adults should receive tetanus boosters every 10 years and international travelers should get them before leaving their home country. Other precautions include cleaning wounds carefully to remove dirt and foreign objects that may carry tetanus spores.