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Patient education: Tetanus (The Basics)

Patient education: Tetanus (The Basics)

What is tetanus? — Tetanus is a serious infection that causes muscle stiffness and spasms. It is sometimes called "lockjaw" because muscle spasms can clench the jaw shut.

Tetanus is caused by bacteria (germs) that live in the soil. They can get into the body through a cut or scrape. They can also get into the body if a person uses a needle to inject illegal drugs. Most people in the United States are protected from these bacteria because they have gotten vaccines against them.

What are the symptoms of tetanus? — The symptoms include:

Stiff jaw or neck muscles, which make it hard to move your jaw or neck normally

A strange-looking smile that does not go away when you try to relax your mouth

Tight, painful muscles that do not let go when you try to relax them

Trouble breathing, swallowing, or both

Feeling irritable or restless

Sweating even when you are not exercising or hot

Heartbeat that is faster than usual, or irregular heartbeat

Fever

Painful muscle spasms

People who are very sick with tetanus can have muscle spasms that force the body into a "bridge" position. This can involve:

Clenched fists

Back arched off the floor or bed

Legs stretched out

Arms moving back and forth

Trouble breathing – The person might even stop breathing during a muscle spasm.

Is there a test for tetanus? — No. There is no simple test. But your doctor or nurse should be able to tell if you have it by learning about your symptoms and vaccine history, and by doing an exam. This infection is most likely in people who have had an injury and who have not had the tetanus vaccine at all or not had the right vaccine boosters.

Is tetanus dangerous? — Yes. People with tetanus need to go to the hospital, and some people even die from it. The muscle spasms can cause a person to stop breathing.

How is tetanus treated? — Doctors treat tetanus in the hospital, sometimes in the intensive care unit (ICU). Treatments include:

Cleaning cuts or scrapes to remove skin and tissue that could have tetanus bacteria on it

Giving medicines to fight the infection

Giving a tetanus vaccine booster

Giving medicine and other treatments to reduce muscle spasms, breathing problems, pain, and other symptoms

Using a ventilator (breathing machine) if you have trouble breathing on your own

Using a feeding tube if you cannot eat or drink on your own

Having physical therapy to help muscles recover

Can tetanus be prevented? — Yes. To reduce your chances of getting tetanus, do these things:

Get a tetanus vaccine and boosters – The vaccine teaches your body how to fight tetanus. Most children growing up in the United States get this vaccine as part of their routine childhood vaccines.

It's also important to get regular tetanus booster shots. Booster shots remind your body how to protect against infection. Adults should get tetanus booster shots every 10 years.

Call your doctor or nurse if you get a puncture wound or animal bite – A puncture wound is when something sharp or pointy, like a nail, goes deep into the skin. You should also tell the doctor or nurse if you get an injury that leaves anything in your skin, like a piece of metal or glass.

If you get a bad wound, you will need to get a tetanus booster shot if you haven't had one in the last 5 years. If you have a bad wound and you haven't received all of your tetanus vaccines or you are not sure if you have, you will need a tetanus booster shot and another shot to fight any tetanus bacteria that got in the wound.

Clean wounds carefully – Wash all cuts or scrapes with soap and water and use antibiotic ointment on them. See a doctor or nurse if you cannot get all the dirt out or cannot see all the way into the wound.

Be careful with needles – If you use needles (for example, to give yourself medicine), make sure they are clean and sterile.

More on this topic

Patient education: Taking care of cuts, scrapes, and puncture wounds (The Basics)
Patient education: Animal and human bites (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (The Basics)
Patient education: What you should know about vaccines (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for babies and children age 0 to 6 years (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for children age 7 to 18 years (The Basics)

Patient education: Vaccines for adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Why does my child need vaccines? (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Animal and human bites (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
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