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A to Z: Tetanus

May also be called: Lockjaw

Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a serious but preventable disease that affects the body's muscles and nerves. Most cases happen when a skin wound is contaminated by a type of bacteria (Clostridium tetani) often found in soil.

More to Know

Once the bacteria are in the body, they produce a neurotoxin (a protein that acts as a poison to the nervous system) that causes muscle spasms. The toxin can travel throughout the body via the bloodstream and lymph system.

As it circulates more widely, the toxin interferes with the normal activity of nerves throughout the body, leading to generalized muscle spasms. Spasms can be so forceful that they tear muscles or even cause spine fractures. Without treatment, tetanus can be fatal.

Tetanus is not contagious — you can't catch it from someone who has it.

Keep in Mind

The best way to prevent tetanus is to be immunized against it. Also helpful is protecting feet against deep or dirty wounds (such as from stepping on a nail) by wearing thick-soled shoes or sandals instead of going barefoot, especially when outdoors.

All wounds should be kept clean. Apply an over-the-counter antibacterial or antiseptic treatment to help prevent bacteria from growing, change the dressing once a day, and get a tetanus shot or booster if needed. Deep puncture wounds, especially on the bottom of a foot, must be seen by a doctor because these are more likely to become infected without proper treatment.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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