Symptoms of Tetanus

Updated at: Jan 18, 2013
Symptoms of Tetanus

Symptoms of tetanus are caused because of a neurotoxin produced by tetanus spores that interferes with nerves that control muscle movement. Muscle spasm and rigidity (muscles becoming stiff) is the hallmark feature of tetanus. The stiffness starts

Dr Poonam Sachdev
Fashion & BeautyWritten by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Jul 07, 2012

Symptoms of Tetanus

Tetanus or lockjaw is a serious infection which can be fatal. It is caused by spores of Clostridium tetani bacteria.

Symptoms of tetanus

Symptoms of tetanus may start as early as four days after contamination of wound to about three weeks later. In general it starts about 10 days after initial infection, but in some cases symptoms may develop after months. According to experts incubation period is longer when the injury site is farther from the central nervous system. Symptoms tend to be more severe in patients with shorter incubation periods.

Muscle spasm and rigidity (muscles become stiff): This is the hallmark feature of tetanus. As the stiffness is first noticeable in the chewing muscles, in most cases the disease is also known as lockjaw. The muscle spasms can aggravate and spread to the neck and throat, causing dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing). Tetanus can be localised or generalised.

Generalised tetanus: Symptoms of generalised tetanus may include any of the following:

  • Irritability and weakness.
  • Muscle cramps, muscles soreness or spasm.
  • Spasm of throat and neck muscle may make swallowing difficult.
  • Spasm and rigidity of facial muscles (jaw muscles that are responsible for chewing) can cause trismus or lockjaw. Lock jaw usually starts in the initial stages of illness. Sardonic smile or risus sardonicus is a symptom that is caused because of facial muscle spasms.
  • Muscle spasms are progressive and involve most of the muscles of the body. Involvement of the trunk muscle causes characteristic arching of the back known as opisthotonus. In some cases the muscle spasms may be intense enough to cause fracture of bones and dislocation of joints.
  • Breathing difficulties may be caused because of spasm of neck and chest muscle. In severe cases, vocal cords or muscles involved in breathing can also get affected. These cases are likely to die unless medical help (mechanical ventilation with a respirator) is readily available.

Cephalic tetanus: In the cases of cephalic tetanus, there is lockjaw and weakness of at least one other facial muscle. In most cases, muscle spasm progresses and involves other muscles of the body and generalised tetanus will develop.

Localized tetanus: When muscle spasm affects just the muscles near the site of the injury, it is known as localised tetanus. In many cases muscle spasm progresses and involves other muscles of the body and generalised tetanus develop as a result.

Neonatal tetanus: When generalised tetanus affects a newborn infant, it is known as neonatal tetanus. Symptoms of neonatal tetanus include irritability, poor sucking ability, difficulty in feeding, and difficulty in swallowing.

Other symptoms which may be present besides spasm and rigidity of muscle include:

  • blood in stools (faeces)
  • diarrhoea
  • fever
  • headache
  • sensitivity to touch
  • sore throat
  • sweating
  • tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).

Tetanus is life-threatening if the patient does not receive treatment. According to studies, mortality rates vary from 40% to 78%.




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