What Are the Warning Signs of Tetanus?

Reviewed on 1/13/2021

What is tetanus?

Warning signs of tetanus may include headache, increased blood pressure, stiff jaw, difficulty swallowing, and  body spasms.
Warning signs of tetanus may include headache, increased blood pressure, stiff jaw, difficulty swallowing, and body spasms.

Sometimes referred to as lockjaw, tetanus is a severe disease that prompts painful muscle contractions. These can lead to the tightening of the jaw. The disease can also cause several other painful symptoms and, in some cases, may prove life-threatening.

Historic records reveal that people suffered the signature symptoms of tetanus thousands of years ago. People have feared the disease throughout history, although its non-communicable nature removed much of the social stigma associated with other illnesses.

With an average of 30 cases per year in the United States, tetanus is now rare. This represents a huge accomplishment, largely thanks to the tetanus vaccine.

Although tetanus is currently uncommon, it has not been entirely eradicated. These days, it is most likely to develop in unvaccinated individuals or those who don’t receive booster shots every 10 years.

Without proper vaccination, the condition can be a big threat. Because it’s rare, many people are completely unaware of the warning signs. Given the severity of the illness, it’s important to catch the symptoms early.

Signs and symptoms of tetanus

A variety of warning signs may indicate the development of tetanus. It’s important to watch for early problems, as the severe symptoms that develop later on can be painful, emotionally distressing, and difficult to treat.

Headache

One of the earliest signs of tetanus and the easiest to miss, headaches may be surprising in their severity. Some patients describe sensations akin to “tightening of the whole head”.

Increased blood pressure

Tetanus can lead to sudden increases in blood pressure, even in people who normally do not have hypertension. This symptom may be accompanied by a higher than usual heart rate.

Stiff jaw

The term “lockjaw” references the most notable symptom of tetanus: stiffness of the jaw muscles. In some people, this stiffness may also extend to the neck or even abdominal muscles.

Difficulty swallowing

The stiffness you feel in the jaw and neck may make it difficult for you to swallow properly if you have tetanus. Muscle spasms may also contribute to issues with swallowing.

Also known as dysphagia, this condition can be life-threatening, as the swallowing difficulty can lead to choking.

Body spasms

Often, tetanus causes painful, involuntary muscle spasms. These last for several minutes and can be triggered by a variety of factors, including bright lights, loud noises, or physical touch.

Tetanus-induced muscle spasms in the back may lead to a type of arching known as opisthotonus. In some cases, muscle spasms may be severe enough to cause ruptured muscles or bone fractures.

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Causes of tetanus

Tetanus forms due to the clostridium bacteria, which lives in soil or dust and enters the human body through breaks in the skin. Common scenarios that lead to the development of tetanus include:

Puncture wounds

When many people hear the term “tetanus,” they immediately picture the painful scenario of stepping on a nail. This is just one type of puncture wound that can increase the likelihood of developing the disease. Deep wounds may not always bleed, but they can be among the most dangerous as they increase the risk of infection.

Superficial wounds

Wounds do not need to be deep to allow spores from the clostridium bacteria to enter the body. This can also occur with superficial wounds such as small cuts and scrapes.

Injections

Although rare, tetanus can occur following some types of injections. Examples include intravenous (IV) drug use and intramuscular injections.

Any other circumstances that lead to a break in the skin could increase the likelihood of suffering tetanus. Other examples include:

When to see the doctor for tetanus

Prompt treatment is critical as soon as you suspect that you may be at risk of developing tetanus.

If you have an injury that breaks the skin and haven’t received the tetanus vaccine or a booster within the past 5 years, seek medical attention. If you don’t remember when you had your last shot, you should see a doctor to be safe. A proactive approach could save you considerable suffering.

If you have any of the symptoms or injuries referenced above and don’t have proper immunization, be sure to contact a doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis for tetanus

Lab tests are rarely effective for diagnosing tetanus. Instead, your doctor will examine your immunization history and look for physical signs, like muscle stiffness or spasms.

Treatments for tetanus

While there is no permanent cure for tetanus, the disease can be managed with a variety of treatments. First, it is important to receive the vaccine—even after being exposed to the disease.

Tetanus antitoxins can take care of tetanus toxins that have not yet bonded to nerve tissue. You can also fight the bacteria responsible for the disease with antibiotics.

Drugs such as beta blockers or magnesium sulfate may help to control breathing, heartbeat, muscle spasms, and other functions damaged by tetanus.

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References
Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism: "Pediatric Dysphagia: Physiology, Assessment, and Management."

Cedars-Sinai: "Tetanus."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Tetanus."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Tetanus: Causes and Transmission."

Clinical Case Reports: "A Case of Atraumatic Tetanus Developed Initially With Worsening Headache in a Woman Regularly Cared for Chronic Headache at an Outpatient Clinic."

Critical Care: "Pharmacological management of tetanus: an evidence-based review."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Tetanus - What Is It?"

Miami University Journeys Into the Past: "Medicine and Disease in History - Tetanus"

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