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Tetanus

Published on May 10, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on May 25, 2024 at 8:00

Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani. This bacteria is found in soil, dust, animal and human feces, and sometimes in saliva. Tetanus causes muscle spasms and can be fatal.

Causes and triggers

The bacteria that causes tetanus produces a toxin that prevents the nerves from working properly. As a result, the muscles contract involuntarily, which causes painful spasms. In most cases, the muscles of the jaw and throat are affected first.

Tetanus can also cause other symptoms and complications:

Common symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Headaches
  • Fever and sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Convulsions (i.e., violent shaking of the entire body)

Complications

  • Lung infections
  • Bone fractures (due to muscle contractions)
  • Nerve or brain damage in children

The bacteria that causes tetanus usually enters the body via a wound that hasn't been adequately cleaned. Even a minor wound that has been cleaned carries a certain risk. Certain injuries are at greater risk of becoming infected with the bacteria that causes tetanus:

  • Wounds contaminated by dust, human or animal saliva, feces, or soil
  • Deep wounds (e.g., due to a bite or a rusty nail)
  • Wounds that contain necrotic tissue (e.g., dead skin that has turned black)
  • Frostbite injuries
  • Burns
  • Skin that has been torn or detached from the body (avulsion)

Symptoms usually appear within 3 to 21 days of the injury, but can arise as much as 50 days later.

Prevention

When injured: It's important to clean all wounds and injuries as soon as possible to prevent tetanus. In some cases, a tetanus vaccine is recommended as a preventative measure.

Tetanus vaccine: The tetanus vaccine is part of Canada's recommended immunization schedule. For this reason, cases are rare. The first doses are given during early childhood and adolescence. One or several booster shots are also recommended for adults.

People who have recovered from tetanus can be re-infected. The best way to protect yourself against this disease is to get vaccinated.

Treatment

Possible treatments for tetanus include the following:

  • Antibodies to neutralize the toxin
  • Medication to reduce symptoms (muscle contractions)
  • Wound treatment (i.e., removing any dead tissue or foreign bodies)
  • A tetanus vaccine
  • A ventilator to help with breathing in severe cases

When should I see a health care professional?

Consult a health care professional in the following cases:

  • You have a wound and you're not vaccinated, not fully vaccinated, or aren't sure of your current vaccination status.
    • You might require one dose of the vaccine.
  • You have tetanus symptoms, such as painful muscle spasms, especially in the face.
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