Tetanus, which is often referred to as lockjaw, affects a person’s nerves and muscles. It is a preventable disease that can be avoided by vaccination.
Babies in the United States can be vaccinated against tetanus starting at two months of age. However, despite the availability of a vaccine, some people either weren’t vaccinated as a baby or need another round of the vaccine.
The bacteria that causes tetanus is often found in soil and produces a toxin that becomes attached to the nerves around a wound, then proceeds to move through the nerves to the spinal cord or the brain. Once it reaches these areas, it begins to affect the messages that the nerves send to the muscles. Infection typically occurs due to a deep puncture injury or cut. Another form of the disease, neonatal tetanus, can occur if the umbilical cord becomes contaminated when a child is born in unsanitary conditions.
How Do You Identify Tetanus?
The most common way to recognize a tetanus infection is by spasm in the jaw, trouble swallowing, or pain and stiffness in the back, shoulders, and neck. These spasms may travel to the thighs, upper arms, and abdominal muscles. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months for the symptoms of tetanus to become evident.
The most effective way to avoid tetanus infection is to be vaccinated against the bacteria. You can also get a shot, called a post-exposure tetanus prophylaxis, as a preventive measure after you sustain an injury that has the potential to cause tetanus.
Although neonatal tetanus is rare in industrialized countries, it should be noted that it is best avoided by ensuring that the mother is fully immunized against tetanus and that the child is delivered in sanitary conditions and receives appropriate umbilical cord care.
What If an Infection Is Suspected?
Whenever a deep wound or puncture occurs, it should immediately be cleaned, and a doctor should be consulted regarding the necessity for a shot. If you are not sure whether your family is immunized or it has been at least ten years since a family member has received a vaccination, you should see your doctor and bring vaccinations up to date. If a child should develop muscle spasms or lockjaw, it is essential to seek medical attention immediately.