Tetanus is a serious bacterial disease that affects your nervous system, leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly of your jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus can interfere with your ability to breathe and can threaten your life. Tetanus is commonly known as “lockjaw.”
Thanks to the tetanus vaccine, cases of tetanus are rare in the United States and other parts of the developed world. However, the disease remains a threat to those who aren’t up to date on their vaccinations, and is more common in developing countries.
Symptoms. Signs and symptoms of tetanus appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after tetanus bacteria enter your body through a wound. The average incubation period is seven to 10 days. Common signs and symptoms of tetanus include:
Spasms and stiffness in your jaw muscles (trismus)
Stiffness of your neck muscles
Stiffness of your abdominal muscles
Possible other signs and symptoms include:
Elevated blood pressure
Rapid heart rate
Causes. Spores of the bacteria that cause tetanus, Clostridium tetani, are found in soil, dust and animal feces. When they enter a deep flesh wound, spores grow into bacteria that can produce a powerful toxin, tetanospasmin, which impairs the nerves that control your muscles (motor neurons). The toxin can cause muscle stiffness and spasms — the major signs of tetanus.
Complications. Once tetanus toxin has bonded to your nerve endings it is impossible to remove. Complete recovery from a tetanus infection requires new nerve endings to grow, which can take up to several months. Complications of tetanus infection may include:
Broken bones. The severity of spasms may cause the spine and other bones to break.
Blockage of a lung artery (pulmonary embolism). A blood clot that has traveled from elsewhere in your body can block the main artery of the lung or one of its branches.
Death. Severe tetanus-induced (tetanic) muscle spasms can interfere with or stop your breathing.