Lockjaw, which is more commonly known as tetanus is a serious bacterial infection which affects the nervous system and leads to the tightening of muscles throughout the body. The “lockjaw” name is due to the fact the infection will start by causing a contraction of the jaw and neck muscles. Eventually, the infection can spread to the rest of the body.
Without treatment, the infection is generally life-threatening. According to the CDC, up to 10% of mild tetanus and 40% of severe tetanus infections are fatal. It is generally a medical emergency and the patient must be given immediate medical attention. There is a tetanus vaccine which is a good preventative measure though vaccine booster shots must be administered after every 10 years so to provide proper immunity for the infection. The vaccine is readily available and due to strong immunisation programs in Australia, most people usually take precaution to get it so lockjaw is a fairly rare infection.
Tetanus is caused by the Clostridium bacteria. Spores of this deadly bacterium are likely to be found in dust or animal droppings. The infection occurs when these spores enter the bloodstream via a deep wound or a cut. Once in the body, they will spread to your central nervous system and in the process secrete a toxin that is known as tetanospasmin. The toxin blocks the nerve signals flowing from the spinal cord to the muscles in the body thereby leading to the muscle spasms that we often associate with tetanus.
You can be infected by tetanus bacterium under the following conditions:
• Puncture wounds
• Where wounds have been contaminated by dirt, saliva or faeces
• Injuries that contain dead tissue
• Animal bites such as dog bites
• Insect bites
• From dental infections
Tetanus is quite common in hot and humid areas that contain rich soils.
Symptoms of Lockjaw (Tetanus)
A tetanus infection affects the nerves in your body that control your muscles leading to the stiffness of muscles. Patients will have a difficulty swallowing. This mostly affects muscles in the neck, back, jaw, chest and abdomen. Spasms are also very common during a tetanus infection.
Other symptoms include the following:
• A fast heart rate
• High blood pressure
• Profuse sweating
• Hardening of abdominal muscles
• Difficulty in swallowing
The incubation period for lockjaw between the exposure to the virus and the start of the disease symptoms ranges between three and twenty one days. The tetanus symptoms begin appearing after 14 days. Infections will be more severe when they appear quickly after the initial exposure. These generally have very poor prognosis.
Various complications can occur during a tetanus infection. These mainly result from the muscle spasms that are associated with disease. They include:
• Brain damage as a result of lack of oxygen
• The muscle convulsions and spasms can cause bone fractures and spinal damage
• The spasms also cause breathing problems
• Pneumonia a
• Prolonged stay at the hospital may result in secondary infections
The best prevention is through tetanus vaccination. However, it is highly advised that you go for booster shots in order to maintain optimal immunity and increase the potency of the vaccines. Adults need a booster tetanus vaccine after every 10 years while kids need one after every 11 to 12 years. In case of injuries, ensure that your wounds are cleaned properly and treated, especially if the wound has had contact with the soil.
Tetanus has a fairly poor prognosis. Infections are fatal in 11% of the mild cases and up to 50% in severe cases. The treatment is often difficult and prolonged and involves addressing the various causes and symptoms of the disease in order to reduce the complications. Doctors will use a cocktail of drugs that include an anti-tetanus serum, muscle relaxants, sedatives and various other supportive medicines.