What is Tetanus?
This is a serious, occasionally fatal disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani that lives in the soil, usually from infected animal manure. It can invade the human body via a wound or scratch from an infected object. The bacteria multiply quickly in muscle tissue, attacking the spinal cord nerves and causing agonizing spasms in the limb, abdominal and spinal muscles.
Fortunately, due to extensive immunization programs, tetanus is rare in Australia, fewer than 50 cases being treated in an average year. Immunization in infancy, with booster injections throughout life, has reduced the incidence of this dreaded disease that still proves fatal in some cases, often through respiratory problems due to spasms of the throat and chest. Sometimes it becomes necessary to perform a tracheotomy in order to provide free passage of air to the lungs.
It takes the germ anywhere from five days to five weeks to multiply sufficiently and produce enough toxin to cause symptoms. It may begin with sudden cramp like spasms of the muscles of the back or of the abdomen, or at the site of the infection. Restlessness, irritability and difficulty in swallowing commonly follow. There may be fits.
Gradually the muscle stiffness and spasm increases. The facial muscles become stiff and rigid while the muscles of the neck and limbs similarly go into spasms. Swallowing becomes difficult. The terrible and extremely painful muscle spasms gradually spread out to any or all parts of the body. They may last five to ten seconds and the body is seized with a paroxysm of pain and stiffness. Jaws and hands are clenched, and the back muscles tend to pull the body in a backward direction.
Anyone receiving an obviously dirty wound should clean it with soap and water and an antiseptic. If you have never had a course of tetanus injections it is wise to see your doctor or hospital without delay, as instant protective injections are available. Immediate hospital treatment is imperative if tetanus does develop. Treatment is usually given in an intensive care unit.