A disease of the nervous system caused by bacteria Symptoms Early symptoms: lockjaw, stiffness in the neck and abdomen, and difficulty swallowing Later symptoms: fever, elevated blood pressure, and severe muscle spasms.

Death in about 11% of cases, especially people over age 60

Enters the body through a break in the skin Vaccine Tetanus toxoid (contained in DTaP, DT, and Td vaccines) can prevent this disease.

Tetanus is an acute, often fatal, disease caused by an exotoxin produced by Clostridium tetani. It is characterized by generalized rigidity and convulsive spasms of skeletal muscles. The muscle stiffness usually involves the jaw (lockjaw) and neck and then becomes generalized.

Although records from antiquity (5th century B.C.) contain clinical descriptions of tetanus, it was Carle and Rattone who first produced tetanus in animals by injecting them with pus from a fatal human tetanus case in 1884. During the same year, Nicolaier produced tetanus in animals by injecting them with samples of soil. In 1889, Kitasato isolated the organism from a human victim, showed that it produced disease when injected into animals, and reported that the toxin could be neutralized by specific antibodies. In 1897, Nocard demonstrated the protective effect of passively transferred antitoxin, and passive immunization in humans was used during World War I. Tetanus toxoid was developed by Descombey in 1924, and the effectiveness of active immunization was demonstrated in World War II.


C. tetani is a slender, gram-positive, anaerobic rod that may develop a terminal spore, giving it a drumstick appearance. The organism is sensitive to heat and cannot survive in the presence of oxygen. The spores, in contrast, are very resistant to heat and the usual antiseptics. They can survive autoclaving at 121°C for 10-15 minutes. The spores are also relatively resistant to phenol and other chemical agents.

The spores are widely distributed in soil and in the intestine and feces of horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs, and chickens. Manure-treated soil may contain large numbers of spores. In agricultural areas, a significant number of human adults may harbor the organism. The spores can also be found on skin surfaces and in contaminated heroin.

PATHOGENESIS C. tetani usually enters the body through a wound. In the presence of anaerobic (low oxygen) conditions, the spores germinate.Toxins, including tetanospasmin, are produced, and disseminated via blood and lymphatics. Toxins act at several sites within the central nervous system, including peripheral motor end plates, spinal cord, brain, and sympathetic nervous system. The typical clinical manifestations of tetanus are caused when tetanus toxin interferes with release of neurotransmitters, blocking inhibitor impulses. This leads to unopposed muscle contraction and spasm. Seizures may occur, and the autonomic nervous system may also be affected.

CLINICAL FEATURES The incubation period varies from 3 to 21 days, usually about 8 days. In general the further the injury site is from the central nervous system, the longer the incubation period. The shorter the incubation period, the higher the chance of death. In neonatal tetanus, symptoms usually appear from 4 to 14 days after birth, averaging about 7 days.

On the basis of clinical findings, three different forms of tetanus have been described.

Local tetanus is an uncommon form of the disease, in which patients have persistent contraction of muscles in the same anatomic area as the injury. These contractions may persist for many weeks before gradually subsiding. Local tetanus may precede the onset of generalized tetanus, but is generally milder. Only about 1% of cases are fatal.

Cephalic tetanus is a rare form of the disease, occasionally occurring with otitis media (ear infections) in which C. tetani is present in the flora of the middle ear, or following injuries to the head. There is involvement of the cranial nerves, especially in the facial area.

The most common type (about 80%) of reported tetanus is generalized tetanus. The disease usually presents with a descending pattern. The first sign is trismus or lockjaw, followed by stiffness of the neck, difficulty in swallowing, and rigidity of abdominal muscles. Other symptoms include a temperature rise of 2°-4°C above normal, sweating, elevated blood pressure, and episodic rapid heart rate. Spasms may occur frequently and last for several minutes. Spasms continue for 3-4 weeks. Complete recovery may take months.

Neonatal tetanus is a form of generalized tetanus that occurs in newborn infants. Neonatal tetanus occurs in infants born without protective passive immunity, because the mother is not immune. It usually occurs through infection of the unhealed umbilical stump, particularly when the stump is cut with an unsterile instrument. Neonatal tetanus is common in some developing countries (estimated >270,000 deaths worldwide per year), but very rare in the United States.


Laryngospasm (spasm of the vocal cords) and/or spasm of the muscles of respiration leads to interference with breathing. Fractures of the spine or long bones may result from sustained contractions and convulsions. Hyperactivity of the autonomic nervous system may lead to hypertension and/or an abnormal heart rhythm.

Nosocomial infections are common because of prolonged hospitalization. Secondary infections, which may include sepsis from indwelling catheters, hospital-acquired pneumonias, and decubitus ulcers. Pulmonary embolism is particularly a problem in drug users and elderly patients. Aspiration pneumonia is a common late complication of tetanus, found in 50%-70% of autopsied cases.

Death. In recent years, tetanus has been fatal in approximately 11% of reported cases. Cases most likely to be fatal are those occurring in persons age >60 years (18%, and unvaccinated persons (22%). In about 20% of tetanus deaths, no obvious pathology is identified and death is attributed to the direct effects of tetanus toxin.

Daycare.com would like to thank the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their contributors for this information in striving to make daycare and childcare a more productive and efficient service.

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