Tetanus, which is commonly known as lockjaw, is a bacterial disease affecting the nervous system. The bacterium responsible for the disease is an obligate anaerobic gram positive rod shaped bacillus Clostridium tetani. Tetanus is a rare disease in the Unites States, with an average of 30 reported cases every year. All the reported cases are seen in individuals who have never received tetanus vaccine or in adults who do not stay up to date on their 10 year booster shots.
Can Tetanus Be Transmitted From Person To Person?
Tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. The spores of tetanus bacterium are universal and found in the soil, dust, manure and animal feces. The spores are the dormant form and can change to vegetative form when they are inside the human body. These spores are transmitted in the human body via breach in the skin either through open wounds, abrasions or lacerations. The common ways these spores are transmitted to the body include wounds contaminated with dirt, feces or saliva; punctured wounds such as via a nail or needle; burns; crush injuries; and injuries leading to necrotic tissue. The less common ways of tetanus transmission include superficial wounds, surgical procedures, dental infections, IV drug use, IM injections, insect bites, and compound fractures.
Although, there are various ways tetanus can be transmitted to a person, it is never transmitted from person to person and is not a contagious infection.
The incubation period of the infection is between 3 to 21 days, the average being 10 days. However, it can range from one day to several months depending on the severity of the wound. Generally, shorter the incubation period, more severe is the infection and therefore, worse the prognosis.
What Are The Symptoms Of Tetanus?
The first and the most common sign of tetanus is the stiffening and tightening of the jaw muscles, therefore it is also called lockjaw. Tetanus is caused by the neurotoxin released by the bacterium known as tetanospasmin that affects the nerves supplying the muscles leading to their spasm.
The symptoms include jaw muscle spasm that spreads to neck, abdomen and to the rest of the body if not controlled. In addition, there might also be symptoms of headache, fever, excessive perspiration, seizures, and high blood pressure along with tachycardia. There also might be difficulty swallowing due to spasm of laryngeal muscles and if the tracheal muscles are involved then it might lead to breathing difficulty.
What Are The Complications Of Tetanus?
When tetanus infection is not controlled, then it might lead to certain health conditions including laryngospasm (involuntary tightening of the vocal cords), fractures, nosocomial infections, pulmonary embolism, aspiration pneumonia, breathing difficulty and it might even lead to death of the affected individual.
How Is Tetanus Diagnosed And Treated?
Tetanus can be diagnosed by examining certain signs and symptoms. There are no lab tests to diagnose tetanus.
The patient requires medical emergency and immediate treatment with human tetanus immune globulin (TIG). It also requires antibiotic therapy along with muscle relaxants and wound care.
How Is Tetanus Prevented?
Tetanus can be prevented by being up-to-date on tetanus vaccine and good wound care. It is best to consult a doctor when injured and maintain good hygiene by washing hands regularly and using first aid on minor cuts and taking proper care of non-infected wounds. Vaccines are required lifelong for protection against the infection.
There are various vaccines available in combination with other vaccines such as DT (diphtheria and tetanus), DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis), Td (tetanus and diphtheria) and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis). DTap and DT are given to children below the age of 7 years while Tdap and Td are given to older children and adults. Adults should be up to date on their vaccines and should get booster dose every 10 years as a single vaccine and previous tetanus infection does not provide lifelong immunity.
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