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Lockjaw and Tetanus – What You Should Know

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Lockjaw is an informal word used to describe the inability to open the mouth fully because of the spasm of the muscles around the temporomandibular joint. It is a term used interchangeably with tetanus. Tetanus or lockjaw is a condition caused by the bacteria known as Clostridium tetani. The incidence of the condition has decreased in the United States because of immunization, but it remains to be a potential health risk among agricultural workers or individuals who usually come in contact with animal manure and where immunization is less available.

The material posted on this page for infections, tetanus and wounds is for learning purposes only. Consult your physician if you suspect you have tetanus. To learn more about wound management register in a first aid training program today.

What Causes tetanus?

Tetanus can occur due to a number of factors. A break in the skin is the most common entry of the bacteria. When an open or broken skin comes in contact with a contaminated object, the bacteria spread throughout the body to cause infection and the initial symptom is a lockjaw.  Wounds exposed to contaminated soil, feces or saliva are at risk of contracting the infection. Cuts from a dirty, rusty object or getting punctured by a rusty nail also increases the risk of getting a tetanus infection.

What are the symptoms of tetanus?

The onset of symptoms of tetanus is usually observed between 3 days and 3 weeks from the time of the exposure to the contaminated object. The most initial symptom of the infection is a locked jaw. It may be accompanied with neck stiffness, difficulty swallowing, painful muscle stiffness of the entire body, spasms and fever.

Can tetanus be prevented?

lockjaw is a painful condition

Tetanus vaccination is the best preventive measure against the risk of getting an infection. The primary course of vaccination consists of receiving three doses of the vaccine with an interval of one month after each vaccine. Immediate and proper first aid for wounds are helpful in preventing the infection. Should you have a high risk wound, you may have tetanus immunoglobulin injections. It’s a medication that contains antibodies that kill the bacteria and prevent it from developing the infection.

First aid for high risk wounds

Administering first aid to a wound can help lessen the risk of the infection. You can do the following in order to provide a proper wound care:

  • Stop the bleeding by applying gentle pressure and wrap a clean cloth around it
  • Clean the wounds by rinsing it thoroughly with clean running water
  • You may apply a thin layer of antibiotic cream
  • Get a tetanus shot as soon as possible

Tetanus can be very dangerous and may predispose to life threatening conditions. If you think you have a wound that might be contaminated by dirt and the like, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.


New York State Department of Health. Tetanus (Lockjaw).Retrieved on June 24, 2014 from https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/tetanus/fact_sheet.htm

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