Tetanus Overview: Causes, Transmission, Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention

A significant number of pathogenic microorganisms have been identified to cause infection in the human body. These microorganisms are usually divided into subcategories, including viruses, parasites and, of course, bacteria.

Some bacterial infections are easily treatable and do not pose a life threat to an infected patient, while others can be more harmful and lead to possibly fatal complications. Tetanus is one of the latter kind, sometimes resulting in a more serious infection and symptoms that may put the life of the infected patient in danger.

What Is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacterial infectious disease that causes a range of symptoms and often yields life-threatening complications if preventative measures are not executed in a timely manner. The disease develops when the body is exposed to Clostridium tetani bacterium species, found in the environment. Not all people will develop the infection after being exposed to the bacteria since previous vaccinations would help ensure the body is immune against future exposures to this bacterium species.

The development of this bacterial infection can cause the patient to experience a number of different symptoms and complications. Tetanus is categorized into four different types – a patient is diagnosed with an appropriate type of this bacterial infection based on their symptoms.

The four types of tetanus include:

  • Generalized tetanus
  • Neonatal tetanus
  • Local tetanus
  • Cerebral tetanus

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Tetanus?

Recognition of the symptoms associated with tetanus is essential to provide early treatment and to avoid life-threatening complications possibly. The incubation period of the disease usually lasts around 14 days on average but can take less or more time. A faster incubation period often results in a more serious infection with a higher chance of fatal complications.

In most cases, symptoms caused by this infection will develop slowly. The majority of patients will notice a headache during the early stages of infection, which is usually accompanied by “lockjaw," a term that refers to difficulty opening the mouth. As the infection develops, the patient may also find that it becomes more difficult to swallow. Their neck may also become stiff, as well as their shoulders and their back.

When Should You See A Doctor?

Consultation with a doctor is highly recommended the moment a patient suspects they might have been exposed to the bacteria that causes the tetanus infection. This would include stepping in a nail or being cut – the bacteria usually transmits from the environment toward a patient through open skin, contaminating the patient’s bloodstream, which causes the infection and, in turn, leads to the development of symptoms and complications. Additionally, it is also essential to learn about the particular symptoms associated with the bacterial infection and to consult with a doctor should such symptoms develop in a patient.

What Are The Possible Complications Of Tetanus?

Several complications have been associated with the bacterial tetanus infection. Untreated, these complications can cause a patient's life to be placed in danger and can lead to death.

Some common complications that have been noted among patients with tetanus include:

  • Fractures due to muscle spams that become repeated and frequent.
  • Aspiration pneumonia may develop due to coughing, as well as the difficulty swallowing.
  • Laryngospasm may develop, which can cause breathing difficulties and reduce oxygen supply to the lungs.
  • Tetanic seizures are also known to be present in some patients, which exhibit similar characteristics as epileptic fits.
  • Pulmonary embolism is another possible complication, which is where blood vessels located in the lungs become blocked. This can cause death.
  • Another vital complication to take note of in patients with tetanus is acute renal failure. This occurs when a patient develops rhabdomyolysis, a condition where myoglobin proteins leak into the patient’s user due to the breakdown of skeletal muscles. This leakage of myoglobin can then cause acute kidney failure.

How Is Tetanus Transmitted?

Most bacterial infections are often known to be transmitted between humans. Tetanus is not like these bacterial infections, as the bacterium species that causes the infectious disease is not spread between people, but rather through the environment. The bacteria that is known to cause tetanus is often found in dirt, which is why the disease is usually transmitted after a patient is cut by something sharp that is contaminated with the dirt where the disease is found in. Dirty nails and tools, as well as wood splinters and knives, can all lead to this infection, especially when the result is a deeper wound. In some cases, an animal bite may also lead to tetanus.

Tetanus is contracted when the bacterium enters the body via broken skin.

Tetanus is contracted when the bacterium enters the body via broken skin.

How Is Tetanus Diagnosed?

One particular challenge being faced by the medical industry in regards to tetanus is the fact that no laboratory tests have been established to assist with the diagnosis of this bacterial infection. A doctor attending to a patient needs to consider the clinical features of the patient in order to identify the presence of the bacterial tetanus infection – this is currently the only method that can be used to diagnose a patient with this infection and initiate appropriate treatment. A physician may ask the patient about recent events, such as stepping on a dirty nail or being cut with a dirty knife.

What Are The Treatment Options For Tetanus?

There are a number of treatments available for a patient that presents the signs of tetanus. Treatment needs to be initiated as soon as the symptoms start to develop for a more positive prognosis. When a patient is diagnosed with tetanus, they will need to be admitted to hospital in order to obtain adequate care – fluids will be provided to the patient, as well as appropriate medication to assist with muscle spasms.

Once admitted, the patient will be treated with human tetanus immune globulin, also known as TIG. This medication is the first line of treatment to help eliminate the bacterial infection from the patient’s body. Antibiotics are often also administered to the infected patient in order to further assist with the elimination of the bacteria from the body.

In cases where the bacterial infection becomes more severe, a patient may find it becomes difficult to breathe. In such a case, a special medical machine may also be connected to the patient in order to help them breathe more easily.

If the patient recovers successfully, they will be given a dose of tetanus vaccine before they can be released from the hospital. The vaccine will be given to help their immune system build up a defense against future exposures to the bacteria species that causes tetanus.

Can Tetanus Be Effectively Prevented?

Vaccination against tetanus is important for the general human population to help ensure their immune system can become immune to the bacterial tetanus infection, reducing their risk of developing an infection once exposed to the Clostridium tetani bacterium species. There are different types of vaccines available that can help to protect patients against tetanus. The specific types of vaccines used will depend on a number of factors.

The four particular vaccines that are currently available include:

  • Td vaccines (Tetanus and diphtheria)
  • DTaP vaccines (Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis)
  • Tdap vaccines (Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
  • DT vaccines (Diphtheria and tetanus)

The DTaP and DT vaccines are most commonly administered to younger individuals. In most cases, babies at risk, as well as children under the age of seven, will be provided with one of these vaccines. Individuals older than seven years of age are usually given Tdap or Td vaccines, depending on factors such as the availability of vaccines and the risk factors of the patient (whether they are exposed to risks of other related diseases as well). In addition to protecting against tetanus, these vaccines also provide protection against other infections.

Who Should Get A Vaccine Against Tetanus?

A particular problem regarding tetanus and traveling is that the risk of obtaining the infection may be just as great in a patient’s home country as it would be in a country they will be traveling to. The bacteria are found worldwide – any open wounds are generally considered a risk factor for a person who has not been vaccinated against the bacterium species that causes this infection.

There are some criteria that have been shared to identify lower risk and higher risk areas. Generally, industrialized countries are known to provide more appropriate coverage for immunization against the bacteria and generally have better hygiene, meaning a lower risk of tetanus for the patient. The disease remains a higher risk in agricultural regions, however, as well as in South America, Africa, and Asia.


Tetanus is a serious infection caused by a pathogenic bacterium species. The infection can lead to life-threatening complications when not treated appropriately. Prevention is essential in areas where contamination of the bacterial species is known to be high. Individuals who are in locations where the prevalence of tetanus is known to be higher should also be educated on the symptoms associated with the bacterial infection and to seek medical attention in the presence of any signs.