Tetanus is an infection that affects the nervous system. It can be deadly when it is not treated. There are different types.
Tetanus is caused by bacteria found in soil, dust, or manure. The bacteria enters a person's body through a break in the skin. Once inside the bacteria makes a toxin that causes tetanus.
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Tetanus is most common in places that have rich, moist climates. Other things that may raise a person's risk are:
- Not having an up to date tetanus vaccination
- Injuries such as cuts or burns that have soil or unclean items in them
- Giving birth in places that are not clean
- Lasting wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers that are contaminated with soil or unclean items
- Injection drug use
A person with tetanus may have:
- A stiff, cramping jaw or neck
- Muscle spasms, often in the belly
- Muscle stiffness
- Problems being able to swallow and breathe
- Jerking movements
- Staring off
The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. An exam will be done. Vaccination history may be needed. This can be enough to make the diagnosis.
Care is needed right away. Some people may need help with breathing. Other treatments may include:
- Medicine to:
- Stop the tetanus toxin
- Treat an infection
- Control muscle spasms
- Help the nervous system work better
- Surgery to open and clean any skin wounds.
A tetanus vaccine may be given to those who have not had a recent one.
The best way to lower the chances of tetanus is to get the vaccine:
- Children should get the DTaP vaccine series. DTaP also contains vaccines for the diseases diphtheria and pertussis.
- A single dose of Tdap vaccine is needed for children aged 11 years or more. This vaccine, which is made for older kids and adults, also protects again pertussis and diphtheria.
- All adults should also receive one dose of Tdap. Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap with every pregnancy. This can help to prevent the baby from getting pertussis, which is also known as whooping cough.
- Adults should get a booster dose of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td) or Tdap every 10 years.
Other things that can lower the risk of tetanus are:
- Cleaning all wounds right away
- Seeking care for severe wounds
- Tetanus. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/tetanus.
- Tetanus vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/tetanus/default.htm.
- Thwaites, C.L., Beeching, N.J., et al. Maternal and neonatal tetanus. Lancet, 2015; 385 (9965): 362-370.
- James Cornell, MD
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