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What Is It?

Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is a life-threatening infection caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria. Although these bacteria are especially common in the soil and manure of farms, they can be found almost anywhere. They live in the dirt of suburban gardens and in the dirty waters of floods. They also contaminate dust in cities.

Tetanus bacteria usually enter the body through a dirty puncture wound, cut, scrape or some other break in the skin. Once inside the skin, they multiply and produce a toxin, or poison, that affects the body's nerves. This toxin causes severe muscle spasms, cramps and seizures. Spasms in the jaw muscles produce lockjaw. Spasms also occur in muscles of the throat, chest, abdomen and extremities. If you don't receive proper treatment, the toxin's effect on respiratory muscles can interfere with breathing. If this happens, you may die of suffocation.

A tetanus infection may develop after almost any type of skin injury, major or minor. This includes cuts, punctures, crush injuries, burns and animal bites. In rare cases, a tetanus infection also can occur after surgery, an ear infection, a dental infection or an abortion. Among drug users, tetanus infections have followed heroin injections, especially if the heroin was mixed with quinine. Tetanus also can develop after body piercing, tattooing, an insect sting or even a tiny splinter.

In the United States, only 50 cases of tetanus occur each year, because so many Americans have been immunized against the infection. Almost everyone who develops tetanus in the United States has been inadequately immunized against tetanus. Some have immigrated from developing countries where vaccines are not available to everyone. Others were born in the United States but never received the primary series of injections. Still others simply failed to keep up with the normal schedule of tetanus shots. This is a common problem among adults, especially those older than 60.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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