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Tetanus (Lockjaw & Tetanus Vaccination)

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Tetanus facts

  • Tetanus is frequently a fatal infectious disease.
  • Tetanus is caused by a type of bacteria (Clostridium tetani).
  • The tetanus bacteria often enter the body through a puncture wound, which can be caused by nails, splinters, insect bites, burns, any skin break, and injection-drug sites.
  • All children and adults should be immunized against tetanus by receiving vaccinations.
  • A tetanus booster is needed every 10 years after primary immunization or after a puncture or other skin wound that could provide an entry point for the tetanus bacteria to enter the body.

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is an acute, often-fatal disease of the nervous system that is caused by nerve toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. This bacterium is found throughout the world in the soil and in animal and human intestines. The bacterium can also lay dormant in its spore form for years before becoming activated and developing into a regularly reproducing bacterium.

Where do tetanus bacteria grow in the body?

Contaminated wounds are sites where tetanus bacteria multiply. Deep wounds or those with dead tissue are particularly prone to tetanus infection.

Puncture wounds, such as those caused by nails, splinters, or insect bites, are favorite locations of entry for the bacteria. The bacteria can also be introduced through burns, any break in the skin, and injection-drug sites. Tetanus can also be a hazard to both the mother and newborn child (by means of the uterus after delivery and through the umbilical cord stump).

The potent toxin that is produced when the tetanus bacteria multiply is the major cause of harm from tetanus.

How does the tetanus toxin cause damage to the body?

The tetanus toxin affects the interaction between the nerve and the muscle that it stimulates, specifically at the neuromuscular junction. The tetanus toxin amplifies the chemical signal from the nerve to the muscle, which causes the muscles to tighten up in a continuous ("tetanic" or "tonic") contraction or spasm. This results in either localized or generalized muscle spasms. Tetanus toxin can affect neonates to cause muscle spasms, inability to nurse, and seizures. This typically occurs within the first two weeks after birth and can be associated with poor sanitation methods in caring for the umbilical cord stump of the neonate. Of note, because of tetanus vaccination programs, first introduced in the late 1940s, tetanus infection rates have dropped substantially. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, there have only been three cases of neonatal tetanus reported in the U.S. since 2000. In each of these cases, the mothers were incompletely immunized. Unfortunately, throughout the world, tetanus is still common. In 2014, there were over 2,000 cases of neonatal tetanus and over 9,000 cases of non-neonatal tetanus. In comparison, there were 114,000 overall cases reported in 1980.


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