Lockjaw (tetanus) is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes muscles throughout the body to tighten. Tetanus is also called lockjaw, because the infection often causes muscle contractions in the jaw and neck, but it can eventually spread to other parts of the body. Tetanus infection can be life-threatening without treatment. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of tetanus infections are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tetanus is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in a hospital. Fortunately, tetanus is preventable through the use of a vaccine. However, this vaccine does not last forever. Tetanus booster shots are needed every 10 years to ensure immunity. Because of the easy availability of the vaccine, tetanus is rare in the United States. However, it is more common in other countries that do not yet have strong immunization programs.
What Causes Lockjaw? Bacteria called Clostridium tetani cause tetanus. Spores of the bacteria can be found in dust, dirt, and animal droppings. Spores are small reproductive bodies produced by certain organisms. They are often very resistant to harsh environmental conditions, like high heat. A person can become infected when these spores enter the bloodstream through a cut or deep wound. The bacteria spores then spread to the central nervous system and produce a toxin called tetanospasmin. This toxin is a poison that blocks the nerve signals from your spinal cord to your muscles. This can lead to severe muscle spasms.
What Are the Symptoms of Lockjaw? Tetanus affects the nerves that control your muscles, which can lead to difficulty swallowing. You may also experience spasms and stiffness in various muscles, especially those in your jaw, abdomen, chest, back, and neck. Other common tetanus symptoms are:
fast heart rate
high blood pressure
How Is Tetanus Diagnosed? Your doctor will perform a physical examination to check for symptoms of tetanus, such as muscle stiffness and painful spasms. Unlike many other diseases, tetanus is not generally diagnosed through laboratory tests. However, your doctor may still perform lab tests to help rule out diseases with similar symptoms, such as meningitis (a bacterial infection that affects the brain and spinal cord) or rabies, a viral infection that causes brain swelling.
How Is Tetanus Treated? Treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms. Tetanus is typically treated with a variety of therapies and medications, such as:
cleaning the wound to get rid of the source of the bacteria. In some cases, a surgical procedure called debridement is used to remove dead or infected tissue.
antibiotics like penicillin to kill the bacteria in your system
tetanus immune globulin (TIG) to neutralize the toxins that the bacteria have created in your body
muscle relaxers to control muscle spasms