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Tetanus is the result of an infection that affects the muscles and nerves, usually
due to a contaminated wound.
Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that leads to stiffness of your jaw and other muscles. It can cause severe muscle spasms, make breathing difficult and, ultimately, threaten your life.

A cut, puncture wound, bite or other wound, even if minor, can lead to a tetanus infection in someone without immunity to the infection. Spores of the tetanus bacteria, Clostridium tetani, usually are found in the soil but can occur virtually anywhere. If they enter a wound beyond the reach of oxygen, they produce a toxin that interferes with the nerves controlling your muscles.

Treatment is available, but the process is lengthy and not uniformly effective. Tetanus may be fatal despite treatment. A small number of those result in death. The number of cases and of resulting deaths is far higher in developing countries. The best defense against tetanus is prevention.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of tetanus may include:

  • Stiffness of the jaw, neck and other muscles

  • Irritability

  • Spasms of your jaw and neck muscles

  • Painful muscle spasms

Some people may experience only pain and tingling at the wound site and some spasms in nearby muscles. But as the toxin spreads to nerves supplying muscles, most people have stiffness of the jaw and neck, difficulty swallowing and irritability. Facial and jaw muscles are most often affected by strong spasms. This is why tetanus is commonly referred to as lockjaw.

Spasms of your jaw or facial muscles progress to spasms and rigidity of your neck, abdominal and back muscles. Finally, severe spasms can affect respiratory muscles and make it difficult for you to breathe. You're usually awake and alert throughout the disease.

Signs and symptoms of tetanus may appear anywhere from a few days to several weeks after an injury. The average incubation period for the disease is from 8 to 12 days.


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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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Last Modified : 03/15/08 02:26 AM