What are the Most Common Signs of Tetanus?

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  • Written By: A. Garrett
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2019
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Signs of tetanus include stiffness in the joints and muscles, muscle spasms, trouble swallowing, and laborious breathing. Tetanus is a potentially fatal disease that affects the muscles and nerves. The disease is not contagious; people become infected when a bacteria-produced toxin found in soil enters the body through a wound, open sore, or ingestion. This toxin attaches to the nerves connected to the brain or spinal cord, enters the brain or spinal cord, and alters the nerve signals transmitted from those areas, consequently wreaking havoc on the nervous system and muscles. No physical examinations or blood tests capable of detecting the bacteria or toxin that cause tetanus exist; knowing the signs of tetanus is the only way to diagnose the infection.

After exposure to the toxin that causes tetanus, the signs of tetanus manifest themselves within two weeks. Of all the symptoms of tetanus, stiffness in the jaw, neck, joints, and muscles usually comes first. Due to the inability of many sufferers to open their mouths after contracting tetanus, the infirmity is also called “lockjaw.” As the infection progresses, the muscles in the face may contract involuntarily, causing the appearance of a forced smile. Stiffness in the neck and esophagus may inhibit swallowing.


The most recognizable signs of tetanus are muscle spasms. Communications between the muscles and brain or spine become distorted as the toxin continues to interfere with the signals. Consequently, the muscles begin to continuously tighten up, a process commonly known as spasms.

Although the muscles closest to the wound spasm first, as time progresses, muscles in the back, neck, and abdomen are also affected. Included in these muscle groups are the muscles necessary for respiration. When the breathing muscles spasm, breathing becomes difficult and the possibility of death by asphyxiation increases. As a result, patients experiencing problems breathing may be forced to use breathing machines.

If the signs of tetanus are identified in a timely manner, recovery from the infection is possible. Recuperation usually lasts four to six weeks. Treating tetanus requires antibiotics to destroy the bacteria and toxin associated with the infirmity. Other medicines may be provided to curtail muscle spasms and restore breathing.

Tetanus can be prevented with proper vaccinations. Most sufferers of tetanus are the elderly who came of age before childhood vaccinations became common and children in developing countries who do not have access to such vaccinations and live in areas with poor hygiene. The signs of tetanus in adults and the signs of tetanus in children are similar, so those taking care of the elderly or coming in contact with inhabitants of developing countries do not have to distinguish between age when recognizing tetanus.


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