Tetanus (lockjaw) is an acute, often fatal, disease caused by an exotoxin produced by the bacteria 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.
Tetanus (lockjaw) differs from other vaccine-preventable diseases in that it is not contagious. It does not spread from person to person. 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. The spores of Clostridium tetani bacteria are usually found in soil, intestines and feces of horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs, and chickens, dust, and manure, and they enter the body through breaks in the skin. Children usually become infected through deep puncture wounds or cuts, like those made by nails or knives. But the bacteria can enter through even a tiny pinprick or scratch. Children can also get tetanus following severe burns, ear infections, tooth infections, or animal bites.
When tetanus gets into the body it can take up to 3 weeks for the first symptoms to appear. These are usually a headache, crankiness, and spasms of the jaw muscles. The bacteria produce a toxin (poison), which spreads throughout the body, causing painful muscle spasms in the neck, arms, legs, and stomach. These can be strong enough to break a child’s bones. Children with tetanus might have to spend several weeks in the hospital under intensive care.