Straight, No Chaser: Tetanus (Lockjaw)

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If there could possibly be anything cool about tetanus, it’s that the overwhelming majority of us have never seen it and never will. At first thought, that could seem odd because if you ever end up in an emergency room with a cut or scratch, you’re sure to hear about it. Those two facts are reconciled by knowing there is an incredibly effective vaccine for tetanus, necessary because tetanus is an incredibly dangerous disease. As a result of vaccination, tetanus just doesn’t happen much anymore. Over approximately the last 20 years, less than 30 cases a year have been reported in the United States – nearly all in those either never vaccinated or those not up to date with their tetanus booster shots.

Here are some questions about tetanus to help you understand while this mostly invisible disease is still a major concern.

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What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria named Clostridium tetani. These bacteria are virtually everywhere in the environment, most notably in soil, dust and manure.

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How do I catch tetanus?

Tetanus is contracted through your skin, usually via cuts or punctures by contaminated objects. Burns and crush wounds also are prone to delivering tetanus. You catch it primarily if you’re not immunized, and you receive a tetanus-prone wound.

Is tetanus contagious?

Tetanus doesn’t spread between individuals.

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What are the symptoms of tetanus?

If you’re old enough, you’ve probably heard of lockjaw, which is a nickname for tetanus and describes the muscle spasms of the jaw that occur and prevent opening of the mouth. Other symptoms include muscle stiffness and spasms, jaw cramping and trouble swallowing. Seizures, headaches, fever, sweating, high blood pressure and a fast heart rate are other common symptoms.

Severe cases of tetanus can produce devastating complications, including fractures, pneumonia, blood clots, involuntary contractions of the vocal cords and breathing difficulties. Up to 20% of cases cause death.

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If I got immunized as a child, am I safe?

Full tetanus immunization requires lifelong booster shots every ten years after having received the primary immunization series as a child.

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How will I know if I get tetanus?

Your physician will have to make the diagnosis based on your clinical signs and symptoms. There is no quick test available to confirm the disease.

What will happen if I get diagnosed with tetanus?
Regarding treatment, it’s aggressive and includes hospitalization, further immunization, antibiotics and addressing the wound and developing symptoms. Treating tetanus is a race against the clock, and the disease is life threatening.

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What’s with the picture of the Joker?

The grimace on his face was modeled after the symptom of tetanus known as rictus sardonicus (roughly translated as scornful laughter), as illustrated in the pictures above of those infected. It’s not a grin or a cry. In tetanus, the sufferer’s face is locked in a painful and often sinister pose that resembles a smile. It results from the spasms causing lockjaw.

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