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What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a rare but serious disease of the central nervous system. Tetanus cannot be spread from person to person.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a bacterium, which lives in soil and manure. The bacterium enters the body through an open wound for example, one caused by animal bites, burns or from treading on objects from outdoors such as a rusty nail. Once the bacterium enters the wound (this can be a scratch, but it will prefer deep wounds), it produces a poison known as tetanospasmin which spreads throughout the body and affects the nerves which control muscle activity.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The length of time between becoming infected with tetanus and the development of symptoms can range from 2 days to 1 month.

The most common symptoms of tetanus are muscle spasms. Muscle spasms usually start in the jaw known as ‘lock jaw’, by which name tetanus is also known. Lock jaw makes it difficult for you to open and close your mouth, so you may have difficulty in chewing and swallowing food. Spasms of the facial muscles may follow, then as the poison spreads it causes muscle spasms in the arms, stomach, legs and back.

What are the effects of tetanus?

As tetanus affects the muscles in the jaw it can cause breathing difficulties, which if not treated can lead to suffocation and death.

How is tetanus treated?

If tetanus develops you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. You will usually be given a course of antibiotics and you may also receive the tetanus vaccine. Anyone with tetanus will need to be treated in a hospital.

How can I avoid getting tetanus?

The easiest way of preventing tetanus is by immunization. The tetanus vaccine will usually be given to babies along with diphtheria and whooping cough (known as D.P.T.) in the first few months of life. It is recommended that everyone should have a tetanus booster every 10 years.

If you cut yourself and it breaks the skin and you have not had a tetanus shot in the last 10 years, it is recommended that you receive one. You should also ensure that you clean cuts and wounds as thoroughly as possible.