What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease that develops in humans when an open wound is contaminated by the spores of the bacteria clostridium tetani. It results in an infection when the spores germinate and are activated to develop into bacterial cells. These bacteria proliferate in the body and produce a vicious neuro toxin called tetanospasmin which can give rise to taut muscles and painful uncontrollable spasms. Spores of the deadly bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and animal feces and can stay dormant for years until they find a favorable environment in which they can germinate. They enter the body through mud caked cuts and puncture wounds caused by rusty nails, splinters and ruptured skin after a nasty fall in the dirt. Foreign bodies lodged deep in the skin after an accident or a fall can also give rise to the infection. Tetanus is entirely preventable through vaccination and adequate booster doses, which are required to enable the body to produce the antibodies needed to fight the disease causing bacteria. Worldwide, the mortality rate for tetanus infected people is 50% and most of the victims are either infants or the elderly, including those who have never been vaccinated.

Tetanus can be localized in one part of the body or spread throughout the body to cause muscle spasms all over.  Neonatal tetanus occurs in newborns who are delivered in unsanitary environs and when the mothers have not received pre-natal immunization shots against tetanus. Caring for the umbilical stump so that it does not get contaminated is also vital to protect newborns against the disease. Cephalic tetanus affects the muscles of the face after an injury to the head or a severe infection in the ear and those who contract this form of tetanus run the risk of generalized tetanus that affects the entire body unless they get prompt treatment.

Alternative Names:

In popular parlance, the disease is called Lockjaw because the muscle rigidity usually starts with the jaw and muscles of the face, and the patient experiences muscle spasms and is unable to move the jaw. Clostridium tetani infection is the term used to denote tetanus in medical circles.

Frequently asked questions
  1. Amy Million, Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of tetanus, Primary Care Update for OB/GYNS, Volume 4, Issue 3, May–June 1997, Pages 75-79, ISSN 1068-607X, 10.1016/S1068-607X(97)00006-1.
  2. Warfield M. Firor, The prevention and treatment of tetanus, The American Journal of Surgery, Volume 46, Issue 3, December 1939, Pages 450-453, ISSN 0002-9610, 10.1016/S0002-9610(39)90303-X.