Tetanus


Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a rare illness caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani. Unlike a good many other bacterial infections, you cannot get tetanus through exposure to someone who has already developed it. However, these bacteria are commonly present in the environment around us in the form of spores. They are particularly abundant in dust and soil and even manure. These bacterial spores can get into our bodies when we hurt ourselves as the protective barrier provided by the skin is breached.

When these bacteria enter the body, they release a toxin that affects normal muscular function. In fact, the toxin triggers muscle spasms or contractions. One of the most common manifestations of this is that the patient’s jaw tightens up and refuses to move normally, making it difficult to breathe, speak and eat. This symptom is known as lockjaw and it is one of the most classic signs of tetanus. So much so that, in common parlance, the term ‘lockjaw’ is used interchangeably with the more accurate term ‘tetanus’.

What causes it?

Our skin is our largest organ and our first line of defense against pollutants, environmental toxins, allergens and pathogens like the Clostridium tetani bacteria.

Hence, any condition that compromises the integrity of the skin provides opportunities for harmful substances and microbes to enter the body and give rise to illness.

We often tend to neglect minor abrasions, cuts and puncture wounds since they heal over easily.

But even the smallest of breaks in the skin is sufficient for C. tetani bacteria to enter.

In fact, it is now a common practice for infants and young children to receive tetanus vaccines as part of routine immunization. As adults, it is important to renew this immunization by taking tetanus booster shots. Considering the abundant presence of the pathogen in our environment and the relative frequency of injuries that we suffer on a regular basis, tetanus should actually be much more common than it actually is. The fact that accounts for its rarity is that the governments and medical health providers have been stressing on the importance of administering this vaccine to young children. Most cases of the illness are seen in those individuals who have either never received the vaccine or those who have neglected to take booster shots as adults.

Tetanus can affect individuals of any age. However, it is common among newborns when the umbilical cord is cut off since the bacteria can enter the body through this route. Hence, tetanus vaccination is recommended for individuals of all ages. It is particularly important for young children and infants.

Here are some risk factors for tetanus:

  • Failing to take the vaccine.
  • Failure to take booster shots.
  • Having open wounds or burns.
  • Having chronic sores in the skin as a result of disorders like psoriasis and eczema.
  • Insect bites.
  • Tattoo needles.
  • Wounds contaminated with soil, dust or animal feces.
  • Contamination through surgery.
  • Infection through intravenous drug use.

 

What happens to patients with tetanus?

Spores are the inactive form that bacteria take when they are forced into an inhospitable environment. Bacterial spores can often survive high and low temperatures and fluctuations in environmental pH as well.

In the case of C. tetani, the spores become activated when they enter the human body. Having found a congenial environment, the bacteria then begin to multiply rapidly.

These bacteria produce a potent neurotoxin known as tetanospasmin or, simply, the tetanus toxin.

When this toxin is released into the body, it is capable of impairing nerve function to the extent of causing muscle contractions or spasms. Hence, the tetanus toxin is described as spasmogenic in nature.

If the bacterial spores have indeed managed to infiltrate your body, you will eventually begin to experience symptoms although this will not happen immediately. In most kinds of infections, there is a space of time between the actual exposure and the onset of symptoms. This is known as the incubation period of the pathogen. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, C. tetani bacteria require an average incubation period of 10 days to a fortnight in order to give rise to tetanus in the human body. However, there are recorded instances of the incubation period being as short as 3 days in some cases and more than a month in others.

In any case, if you have developed tetanus, you can expect to see a few or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • A sensation of tightness when attempting to open the jaw.
  • Pain in the jaw.
  • The jaw may deviate towards one side.
  • Inability to bite, chew, speak or breathe normally.
  • Stiffness in the body.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Elevated heart rate.

 

What are some complications that one should be aware of?

In the initial stages, the toxin blocks the movement of voluntary muscles.

One of the early signs of tetanus is the progressive rigidity of the jaw. The patient loses the ability to move their jaw normally and the jaw, so to speak, locks up tightly.

As the disease escalates, rigidity spreads across the trunk and the limbs, accompanied by uncontrollable spasms.

In fact, the spasms may be so violent that the patient may end up with bone fractures. When the toxin blocks the movement of muscles necessary for respiration, the patient dies from the inability to actually breathe.

Tetanus is feared because it can be fatal. As we have just seen, left untreated, the patient may succumb to the illness. Even otherwise, the inability to move the jaw can make it difficult to perform important functions such as breathing, eating and speaking until treatment is made available. The patient is unable to brush and floss, leaving the oral cavity unclean and perfectly congenial for the overgrowth of bacteria that can then give rise to a variety of dental problems like tooth decay and gum disease.

 

How is tetanus diagnosed and treated?

There are no specific laboratory investigations that can be used to confirm a diagnosis of tetanus. Instead, the doctor will have to rely on symptoms to make the diagnosis. When a patient presents with a rigid, immobile jaw or limited mobility of the jaw, the first suspicion will be tetanus. It would be helpful if the patient recalls recently suffering any injuries that might have led to the infection in the first place.

If the patient is already struggling to breathe when they are admitted for medical care, they may require artificial respiratory support in the form of a ventilator. Spasms can be controlled with the help of sedatives.

Generally, the patient will be given tetanus antitoxin in order to neutralize the bacterial toxin in the body. It cannot, however, reverse the effects of toxins that have already managed to bind to nerve tissue. Instead, it prevents the illness from worsening and arrests its progress. Antibiotics can help to kill the bacteria responsible for producing the toxin. It is also a matter of priority to ensure that the wound is properly cared for, cleaned, sterilized and dressed.

 

Prevention

As with other severe illnesses, prevention of tetanus is preferable to treatment. As a rule, parents must remember to get their children vaccinated against tetanus at an early age. Growing up, and as adults, we must remember to take tetanus booster shots to renew the body’s ability to defend itself against C. tetani toxin. Additionally, it is always a good practice to ask for a tetanus shot when you have suffered a wound or a burn or if you have been injured by rusted items like nails.

 

Facts

  • Clostridium tetani, the bacteria responsible for spreading tetanus, is usually found in the soil and in the digestive tracts of animals.
  • It is a non-communicable disease.

Facts

  • Neonatal tetanus ( tetanus infection in new-born babies) killed around 787,000 babies in 1988. This was greatly reduced to 49,000 in 2013 (94% reduction).
  • Immunization is the only way to protect against this disease. The vaccine is called TTCV or Tetanus-toxoid-containing-vaccine. It should be given in 6 doses to ensure life-long immunity.

Facts

  • With improved medical facilities, the mortality rate associated with this infection has been brought down to 10%.
  • Every person should get a tetanus booster shot once every 10 years. It is the best preventive measure agianst this fatal disease.

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Dos and Don'ts

Dos
  • Take a tetanus booster immunization once every 10 years.
  • Post-vaccination, the individual should drink plenty of fluids and keep himself/herself in a cool area.
Don'ts
  • There might be some mild side-effects after taking the tetanus shot such as redness and swelling at the point of injection and fever. Don’t panic.
  • Schedule other vaccinations close to tetanus shots. Space them out to avoid anaphylactic reactions.
  • Administer vaccination when the child is sick.
  • Take analgesic tablets,  before the vaccination as it reduces its effectiveness.

 

 

 

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Atkins Diet: The right steps to carb control that can help you lose those pounds fast The Atkins diet is a high fat, low-carb diet with proven weight loss benefits that is flexible enough…
Barium-enema
Barium Enema Barium enema is also known as colon x-ray. Here, the patient is asked to consume small amount of…
phenytoin test
Phenytoin test Phenytoin is a drug that is administered mainly to epilepsy patients. The phenytoin blood test measures the level…
chloride test
Chloride Test A chloride test of the blood checks the level of chloride in body, an important factor governing the…
complement c4 test
Anemia Profile Anemia Profile test (Basic) is a blood screening test that measures the levels of important components of the…
shiitake mushrooms healthy
What are Shiitake Mushrooms and why should you eat them? Shiitake Mushrooms are well known for their smoky and robust taste. However, did you know they are replete…
Optavia diet
The features of an Optavia diet The Optavia diet endorses pre-packaged meals and snacks called "fuelings" that are tasty, low in calorie, and incorporates…
alcohol toxic
7 startling facts that will make you quit alcohol today Does drinking really make you friendly and happy? How many calories does a can of cold beer add…
Love tea, hate tannins? Rooibos tea is just what you need The market is brimming with a multitude of herbal teas. But what makes rooibos tea (or red bush)…
How to correctly perform nasal irrigation using a Neti Pot? Neti pot has been a part of Ayurveda since centuries. This ancient tool is extremely effective in treating…
The Cabbage Soup Diet: The healthiest way to instant weight loss Cabbage soup diet rapid weight loss diet for those who want to shed those extra pounds in less…
reflexology massage
Top reasons why you should go for a reflexology massage today Reflexology involves the application of pressure to your feet and hands to encourage self-healing. Could this be beneficial…
myelogram
Myelography Myelography is an important diagnostic tool that is used to investigate and identify abnormalities in the spine and…
Rubella IgM test
Rubella IgM Test The Rubella IgM test is a blood test that is performed to diagnose the presence of the rubella…
sodium blood test
Blood Sodium Test A blood sodium test measures the amount of sodium (an important electrolyte) in your body. It is also…
Coconut sugar: What is it and is it healthier than table sugar? In the long list of things that the wonderful coconut gives us, coconut sugar is another remarkable addition.…
Mood swings
The real reasons for your mood swings and how to overcome them Are you prone to heated moods frequently? Do you also feel bouts of depressive feeling creeping up on…
Quinine: How gin and tonic came to be known as a potent health elixir The discovery of quinine-containing tree bark is sometimes considered the most serendipitous medical discovery of the 17th century.
These are the top foods to increase your hemoglobin count It is important to add iron-rich foods into your diet in order to increase hemoglobin. Deficiency of hemoglobin could…
Balneotherapy jacuzzi
5 things you didn’t know about balneotherapy and how you can do it at home Sauna baths have been popular since a long time. But how much more beneficial can balneotherapy be as…
GGt test
GGT – Gamma-Glutamyl Transferase Test GGT or gammaglutamyl transferase test is a liver function test that is used to detect the extent of…
C-Reactive Protein Test A CRP or c-reactive protein blood test is an important diagnostic tool used to determine the risk of…
ANTIPHOSPHOLIPIDANTIBODY(APL)_IgG
Antiphospholipid (APL) antibody-IgG The Antiphospholipid Antibody testing is a blood test used to determine an autoimmune disorder called Antiphospholipid syndrome linked…
valproic acid test
Valproic Acid Test Valproic acid test is performed to generally check for psychiatric and even neurological conditions such as bipolar disease…
vdrl test syphilis
VDRL Test The VDRL test is a blood test that is used to diagnose sexually transmitted or venereal diseases, primarily…
Okra: How can this nutrient-dense vegetable help you fight diabetes? Okra is a food which is rich in nutrients and minerals which are extremely essential for a healthy…
hidden benefits walking
9 benefits of walking we bet you didn’t know! Did you know walking can be the miracle pill for eternal youth? Everyone knows walking is good for…
stress depressed anxiety
Are you depressed or just stressed? Know when to see a doctor Why are some people more anxious than others? Is being depressed the same as feeling sad? Have you…
acne removal tips
Anatomy of acne: 7 instant steps to kiss those zits goodbye Blackheads, whiteheads, or pimples-call them what you may. Acne is never good news.Did you know some of the…