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 What you need to know about tetanus

Tetanus is a severe bacterial infection. It affects your nervous system. The bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, causes painful muscle spasms, and difficulty breathing. 

Another name for tetanus is lockjaw – the infection usually starts contracting the muscles in your jaw and neck. Eventually, it spreads to the rest of your body. 

The vaccine is the best way to treat the infection – preventatively.

These days, tetanus is rare in different parts of the developed world. Unfortunately, it is still common in developing countries. Luckily, if you keep abreast of your vaccinations, you should remain tetanus free. 

The history of tetanus

Although older records contain clinical descriptions of tetanus, it was only first produced in animals in 1884. Researchers injected animals with the pus from a fatal human tetanus case, the CDC reports. Scientists then injected the animals with samples of soil that was believed contaminated with the tetanus causing bacteria. Spores of tetanus bacteria are everywhere in the environment, including soil, dust, and manure. The spores develop into bacteria when they enter the body.

Kitasato Shibasaburo isolated the organism from a human in 1889, showed that it produced disease when injected into animals, and reported that specific antibodies could neutralise the toxin. In 1897, Edmond Nocard demonstrated the protective effect of passively transferred antitoxin and used passive immunisation in humans for treatment and prophylaxis during World War I. 

Nowadays, it is one of the most common vaccines and is given to young children and adults.

Vaccination for children ages 7 to 18

Doctors recommend a booster shot for children at age 11 or 12. The booster shot is called the Tdap vaccine. If your child hasn’t received a booster shot at this age, talk to your doctor about appropriate options.

Adults should get a booster shot once every ten years – a bit sooner is better to make sure you don’t leave any window open for infection. You can decide between one of two vaccines, Tdap or Td. If you weren’t vaccinated against tetanus as a child or are unsure about your vaccination status, speak to your doctor about getting the Tdap vaccine.

It is very important to get a shot immediately if you have had a big tear of the skin, particularly from a rusty object – or if you have played or worked in contaminated soil.

Symptoms to look out for

A tetanus infection is apparent after an incubation period of 10 days. According to Mayo Clinic, this is the average time from infection to the appearance of signs and symptoms. The incubation period can also range between three and 21 days. 

Generalised tetanus is most common. 

You will experience painful muscle spasms in the jaw and immovable muscle rigidity. Muscle tension around your lips is another symptom of generalised tetanus, followed by stiff neck muscles, which make swallowing difficult. Your abdominal muscles may feel rigid too. 

As the tetanus symptoms progress, you will feel repeated painful, seizure-like spasms—these last for several minutes—usually, your neck and back arch. The tensed up muscles in your neck and abdomen may make it hard to breathe. Your legs become rigid, and your arms draw up towards your body with clenched fists. 

Severe spasms may be triggered by a loud sound, physical touch, a draft or light. These are sense stimulators. 

The progression of the infection may bring upon other signs and symptoms, including high blood pressure or low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, extreme sweating and fever.

Treatment options

An inappropriately managed cut or wound is tetanus-prone. You can prevent the infection if treated immediately by a medical professional. 

If a wound or burn has lost a considerable amount of tissue, it is tetanus-prone. You may require surgery and antibiotics. 

This applies to puncture-type injuries as well, especially if the injury has touched manure or soil. Compound fractures, and wounds or burns with systemic sepsis can also get tetanus.

The wounds listed above require tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG) even if the patient is vaccinated. TIG contains antibodies that kill the infection when injected into your vein. It provides immediate and short-term protection from tetanus. 

TIG cannot replace long-term vaccination effects. Another treatment for tetanus is penicillin or metronidazole. Some antibiotics prevent bacteria from multiplying.  

Some people are allergic to penicillin or metronidazole. The doctor may prescribe tetracycline instead. 


If your tetanus-prone wound is more significant and serious than you thought, your doctor may recommend surgery. The surgery, known as debridement, will remove a lot of the damaged and infected muscles.

Debridement is the removal of dead or contaminated tissue or unfamiliar material, such as dirt or manure. 

Nutrition and a ventilator

Tetanus patients need a high-calorie intake every day. For breathing support, a ventilator helps your affected vocal cords and respiratory muscles.

Get your booster shots on schedule to prevent a tetanus infection. Check with your doctor about when last you had your shots. 

Clean your wounds properly.

A serious matter

Tetanus infection can be life-changing and life-threatening. Without treatment, your life is at risk. Fatalities are common in young children and older adults. Without the vaccine, if you get tetanus once, you can get it again.

If you think you have tetanus, do not hesitate to book an appointment with your doctor or go to the emergency room.

  • Affinity Health members may contact us on 0861 11 00 33 to consult an Affinity Health primary healthcare consultant. He or she will assess your symptoms and give you medical advice before issuing you with a script for medication or referring you to consult an Affinity Health network GPs.
  • Please visit our site to locate an Affinity Health network GP closest to you.


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