A Detailed Look at Tetanus

You may know that if you happen to step on a rusty nail or get scratched by a dirty or rusted piece of metal, it is wise to go to the closest walk in clinic or urgent care facility to get a tetanus shot.

While most people understand that, it is common to not really know anything else about tetanus beyond the recommended treatment for it.

This post will help you better understand what exactly tetanus is, how it gets into your body and what can happen if it is left untreated.

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus, also commonly referred to as lockjaw, is an infection caused by a specific strain of bacteria called Clostridium tetani. While C. tetani can be found just about everywhere in your environment, it is really only harmful when it enters your body.

The most common ways for tetanus bacteria to get into your body include puncture wounds, burns and wounds that are contaminated with things like dirt, bodily fluids or feces. Other, less common, ways to contract a tetanus infection include severe injuries involving tissue death or crushing of the body.

Because tetanus is a toxic bacterial infection, it requires medical treatment immediately to keep the infection from worsening or spreading.

What Are the Symptoms of Tetanus?

Often, the symptoms of tetanus do not appear right away, which can lead people to mistakenly think they are fine without seeking medical care. Symptoms of the infection can take anywhere from one to three weeks to present.

Common symptoms include:

– Pain or tingling around the wound
– Stiffness and tightness of the jaw
– Stiffness of the neck
– Facial muscle spasms
– Irritable mood
– Difficulty swallowing
– Tightness of stomach muscles
– Painful spasms of the whole body
– Fever
– Heart palpitations
– High blood pressure

Who is at Risk For Tetanus?

It is possible for anyone to contract a tetanus infection, which is why doctors strongly recommend for patients to stick with a regular booster shot schedule.

A few risk factors that can increase the likelihood of getting a tetanus infection are failure to keep up with vaccinations, use of injectable drugs, insect bites, puncture wounds and infected foot ulcers.

What Are the Treatment Options For a Tetanus Infection?

The best treatment available is simple prophylaxis. There is no cure for a tetanus infection, so it is not a simple issue to resolve if a person becomes infected.

It is important to remember that a potential tetanus infection is a serious medical emergency and should never be taken lightly. This is not a medical issue that can be treated with homeopathic remedies or over-the-counter solutions.

Treatment for a mild tetanus infection usually consists of wound care, intravenous medications to help manage symptoms and supportive care by medical professionals.

First, it is critical to thoroughly clean the wound. This ensures that it is free from dirt, foreign objects and dead tissue that could support the growth of more tetanus bacteria spores.

After the wound has been sterilized, your doctor will usually give you a tetanus vaccine, which is usually called a Tdap. This is a vaccine cocktail that helps protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Depending on your vaccination history, the doctor may opt to just give you a vaccine for only tetanus and diphtheria, which is normally called a Td shot.

Doctors will usually administer an antitoxin agent as well. This antitoxin is typically tetanus immunoglobulin and can be given via intravenous, or IV, therapy or as an injection. This shot will only be able to neutralize tetanus toxin that has not already bonded to nerve tissue though, which is why it is so important to keep up with regular immunizations.

More severe cases of tetanus require additional, extensive medical care. The intense muscle spasms that the tetanus bacteria can cause normally require someone who is severely infected to be sedated with powerful drugs. Because sedatives can impair breathing, people with serious tetanus infections often need a ventilator.

What Happens If a Tetanus Infection is Left Untreated?

Unfortunately, tetanus is a condition that can rapidly worsen if left untreated, and it can be fatal without proper care.

Once the initial symptoms of lockjaw, fever, headache and general muscle stiffness occur, the more severe symptoms are not far behind. These symptoms include intense, painful, full-body muscle spasms, uncontrolled heart muscle spasms, involuntary vocal cord spasms, and possibly blood clots or pneumonia.

Someone who is experiencing any of these symptoms because of a tetanus infection must be placed in immediate, intensive care. Doctors will administer a spinal injection of the tetanus immunoglobulin antitoxin, as well as a full course of powerful antibiotics. Patients require a tracheotomy to help normalize breathing, and most people require a constant IV drip of magnesium and muscle relaxants to essentially paralyze the muscles as much as possible.

Full recovery from an untreated tetanus infection is not guaranteed. It requires exhaustive care over the course of at least six weeks, because the body has to regenerate completely new nerve endings to replace the ones destroyed by the tetanus toxin.

In the United States, reported cases of tetanus are extremely low, with an average of 30 or fewer per year. The majority of these cases are reported in individuals who either had never received a tetanus vaccine or had let their inoculation schedule lapse. While this is a serious condition that should never be taken lightly, it is an infection that can easily be prevented with a single, simple booster shot.

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