Tetanus (lockjaw)



Tetanus is a very serious disease that causes painful muscle spasms and tightening of the muscles all over the body – including the ‘locking’ of the jaw which means that the person cannot open their mouth or swallow.

Tetanus can’t be completely eradicated because the bacteria that cause it don’t rely on people to survive, but instead live in the environment in soil, dust and manure. Maternal and neonatal tetanus is a big problem in developing countries, due to unhygienic conditions during delivery, and after birth. In Ireland the most common way of infection is through breaks in your skin (such as standing on a dirty nail or an animal bite). The only way of preventing this disease is by vaccination.

The Clostridium tetani bacteria produce a toxin that damages nerves and causes muscle spasms; the symptoms usually appear about 2 weeks after infection (or anytime between 4-21 days). The common symptoms are spasms and stiffness of jaw and neck muscles, difficulty swallowing and breathing, painful body spasms that last several minutes and can cause bone fractures, and difficulty breathing and swallowing.

Tetanus is extremely serious. Young children and people over the age of 60 are at greater risk of permanent damage or death, and babies are often left brain damaged due to lack of oxygen (caused by spasms making it difficult to breathe). If the voice box (larynx) goes into spasm this results in immediate death.

Fractures of bones, particularly the spine, resulting from severe muscle spasms can cause permanent disability. Other complications can include pulmonary embolisms (clots - commonly blood clots- in the lung), pneumonia, and difficulties breathing.

About 1 in 10 tetanus infections are fatal. The 6-in-1 vaccine protects children from the bacteria that cause tetanus.