Risks at a glance:

  • Blood poisoning (septicaemia)
  • Heart attack (cardiac arrest)
  • Seizures and muscle spasms – the severe muscle spasms that happen with a tetanus infection can cause kidney failure
  • Fractures – the muscle spasms and convulsions that are caused by a tetanus infection may lead to fractures in the spine and other bones
  • Aspiration pneumonia – the muscle rigidity caused by tetanus can make coughing and swallowing difficult, so a person can inhale saliva or other secretions, causing aspiration pneumonia which can lead to a lower respiratory tract infection
  • Laryngospasm – spasm in the voice box that prevents oxygen from reaching your lungs, making breathing difficult. in very severe cases, laryngospasm can lead to suffocation
  • Pulmonary embolism – a serious and potentially life-threatening condition caused by a blockage in a blood vessel in the lungs

About the disease:
The main symptoms of tetanus are muscle spasms and muscular stiffness, usually beginning in the face, with the ‘chewing muscles’ affected, making it difficult to open your mouth. (sometimes called ‘lockjaw’). The muscle spasms then start to affect the neck area and the throat muscles (which can make swallowing difficult), and the face muscles.

Once the muscle stiffness affects the neck and chest it can make breathing difficult. Sometimes, the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the arms and legs are also affected. Spasms in the back muscles can affect the spine which, in severe cases, can become arched backwards. This most commonly occurs in children with a tetanus infection.

How is it spread:
Tetanus bacteria can enter the body is through a cut or puncture wound, its spores can live for a long time outside the body and are widespread in the environment. They are usually found in animal manure and in contaminated soil. After entering the body, the tetanus bacteria quickly multiply and release a neurotoxin (poison) called tetanospasmin. If tetanospasmin enters the bloodstream, it can spread around the body, causing the symptoms of tetanus to develop.

Severe tetanus is usually treated in the intensive care unit of a hospital by putting the person in an induced coma until the disease runs its course.

Impact of tetanus:
The World Health Organisation estimate that about 280,000 people die of tetanus worldwide each year, mostly in developing countries. Around 210,000 of these deaths are children.

Tetanus can be prevented with a vaccine, usually a combination one that also contains whooping cough and diphtheria.