The tetanus patient lies down on the gurney or the floor, and his fingers and toes curl up like the angry talons of birds of prey. He jerks up and spasms violently, as if spirits have possessed every bone and muscle in his body. His jaw stiffens; it locks into a grimace reminiscent of happy clowns in extreme pain. His eyes look up to the heavens, looking for salvation from the infection that ravages his body with slow, agonizing torture.
The worst dangers of tetanus are anything but poetic. Spine fractures, violent muscle spasms, and lockjaw are just three of the many things that can go wrong for a tetanus victim. While scientists and doctors have figured out many ways to cure and control tetanus, the disease is still prevalent in many parts of the world. Here are some things that you have to know about this dangerous disease.
What is Tetanus?
Tetanus is a potentially fatal disease caused by toxic substances produced by Clostridium tetani bacteria. Tetanus was known to humankind since the days of the ancient Greeks. While the disease was a common cause for death in antiquity, advancements in health and disease control has now made it a rare disease in many developed nations. The threat of tetanus, however, has yet to be completely eliminated.
Forms of Tetanus
There are four kinds of tetanus infections known to modern medicine:
- Generalized tetanus is a tetanus infection that affects the whole body.
- Local tetanus is an infection that only affects the part of the body where the bacteria is found.
- Cephalic tetanus affects the nerves in the jaw and the face, and has the potential to cause brain damage.
- Neonatal tetanus affects newborns to mothers who have either contracted tetanus, or are no longer immune from the disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the United States had about 500 to 600 cases of tetanus before childhood immunization from the disease was introduced in the 1940s. Since then, the mortality rates from tetanus has decreased dramatically. In 2003, an all-time low for tetanus infections was recorded by the CDC, with just 20 cases for the year.
The C. tetani bacteria is a very hardy and resistant life-form usually found in soil, contaminated intravenous equipment, improperly prepared fireworks, and illegal drugs. The bacteria enters the body through puncture wounds exposed to the source of the bacteria. A common misconception is that rust causes tetanus; while exposure to rust does not directly cause tetanus, the rust may harbor some C. tetani spores. C. tetani produces a toxin called tetanospasmin, which causes the muscle spasms and other symptoms consistent with tetanus.
Signs and Symptoms
Tetanus affects skeletal muscles, or the muscles attached to bones and joints to facilitate movement. Scientists have yet to determine a way to determine the presence or progression of tetanus until the symptoms become present and evident on the patient. Here are some signs and symptoms of tetanus:
- Lockjaw is the first sign of tetanus. The patient cannot move his or her jaw, or the jaw is locked into an uncomfortable position. (Learn how to get rid of lockjaw)
- Severe muscle spasms. The most dangerous and fatal symptoms demonstrated in a severe tetanus infection is muscle spasms. The tetanized muscles become rigid, and the body moves uncontrollably and violently to cause fractures in the limbs and break the spine in many different places. From here, it becomes very difficult to treat tetanus, and death may set in.
As a serious, life-threatening disease, medical intervention in severe cases of tetanus is needed. Chemicals are administered to the body intravenously to get rid of tetanus. Some of these chemicals include:
- Magnesium helps prevent muscle spasms, and temporarily stops the spasmodic movement of muscles for medical professionals to be able to administer the proper treatments.
- Immunoglobulin. Anti-tetanus immunoglobulin, or antibodies, is always administered to patients with severe cases of tetanus to prevent the further spread of the bacteria. If the specific antibody cannot be used or is not available, ordinary human antibodies may also be used.
- Diazepam is a skeletal muscle relaxant that helps reduce or eliminate spasmodic skeletal muscle movement. In severe cases, diazepam may be combined with intravenous magnesium treatments.
- Tetanus vaccine, or a booster of vaccine, is used to assist prophylactic treatment.
- Metronidazole is a chemical that helps reduce the bacteria present in the body. The rest of the chemicals in the antibiotic treatment get rid of the toxins.
Tetanus is a disease that can easily be prevented by vaccination. The good news is that tetanus vaccine is always included in childhood immunization, which makes the disease almost impossible to contract. You should, however, get booster shots for tetanus regularly to prevent any risk of infection. You should always check with your doctor to see if you’re scheduled for a booster immunization, or if you have yet to be immunized.
Tetanus can be described in medical terms, or in literary terms, but there is no way to properly convey the torture and pain of tetanus. Yet with advancements in science and healthcare, you can now leave the horrors of this deadly disease in your mind, where it belongs. If you learn from this article, you’ll surely be interested in reading how to heal an infection.