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Symptoms and Signs of Tetanus (Lockjaw)

Doctor's Notes on Tetanus (Lockjaw)

Tetanus is an infectious disease caused by contamination of wounds with the Clostridium tetani bacterial spores that live in the soil, dust, and animal waste. The bacteria can enter the body through puncture wounds, such as those caused by rusty nails, splinters, and insect bites. Any break in the skin, burns, and IV drug access sites are also potential entryways for the bacteria.

Symptoms of tetanus include muscle rigidity and spasms, irritability, muscle cramps, sore muscles, weakness, or difficulty swallowing. Facial muscles are often affected and lockjaw is common. Muscle spasms are progressive and may include a characteristic arching of the back (opisthotonus), and may be intense enough to cause broken bones and dislocated joints. In severe cases, muscle spasms may involve the vocal cords or breathing muscles, and can result in death if there is no medical intervention. In neonates symptoms of tetanus may also include irritability and poor sucking ability or difficulty swallowing.

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.