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Photo of a person in an arched position.
A tetanus patient exhibiting the rigid body posture known as opisthotonos. (credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Tetanus is a noncommunicable disease characterized by uncontrollable muscle spasms (contractions) caused by the action of TeNT. It generally occurs when C. tetani infects a wound and produces TeNT, which rapidly binds to neural tissue, resulting in an intoxication (poisoning) of neurons. Depending on the site and extent of infection, cases of tetanus can be described as localized, cephalic, or generalized. Generalized tetanus that occurs in a newborn is called neonatal tetanus.

Localized tetanus occurs when TeNT only affects the muscle groups close to the injury site. There is no CNS involvement, and the symptoms are usually mild, with localized muscle spasms caused by a dysfunction in the surrounding neurons. Individuals with partial immunity—especially previously vaccinated individuals who neglect to get the recommended booster shots—are most likely to develop localized tetanus as a result of C. tetani infecting a puncture wound.

Cephalic tetanus is a rare, localized form of tetanus generally associated with wounds on the head or face. In rare cases, it has occurred in cases of otitis media (middle ear infection). Cephalic tetanus often results in patients seeing double images, because of the spasms affecting the muscles that control eye movement.

Both localized and cephalic tetanus may progress to generalized tetanus—a much more serious condition—if TeNT is able to spread further into body tissues. In generalized tetanus, TeNT enters neurons of the PNS. From there, TeNT travels from the site of the wound, usually on an extremity of the body, retrograde (back up) to inhibitory neurons in the CNS. There, it prevents the release of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter responsible for muscle relaxation. The resulting muscle spasms often first occur in the jaw muscles, leading to the characteristic symptom of lockjaw (inability to open the mouth). As the toxin progressively continues to block neurotransmitter release, other muscles become involved, resulting in uncontrollable, sudden muscle spasms that are powerful enough to cause tendons to rupture and bones to fracture. Spasms in the muscles in the neck, back, and legs may cause the body to form a rigid, stiff arch, a posture called opisthotonos. Spasms in the larynx, diaphragm, and muscles of the chest restrict the patient’s ability to swallow and breathe, eventually leading to death by asphyxiation (insufficient supply of oxygen).

Neonatal tetanus typically occurs when the stump of the umbilical cord is contaminated with spores of C. tetani after delivery. Although this condition is rare in the United States, neonatal tetanus is a major cause of infant mortality in countries that lack maternal immunization for tetanus and where birth often occurs in unsanitary conditions. At the end of the first week of life, infected infants become irritable, feed poorly, and develop rigidity with spasms. Neonatal tetanus has a very poor prognosis with a mortality rate of 70%–100%.

Treatment for patients with tetanus includes assisted breathing through the use of a ventilator, wound debridement, fluid balance, and antibiotic therapy with metronidazole or penicillin to halt the growth of C. tetani. In addition, patients are treated with TeNT antitoxin, preferably in the form of human immunoglobulin to neutralize nonfixed toxin and benzodiazepines to enhance the effect of GABA for muscle relaxation and anxiety.

A tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccine is available for protection and prevention of tetanus. It is the T component of vaccines such as DTaP, Tdap, and Td. The CDC recommends children receive doses of the DTaP vaccine at 2, 4, 6, and 15–18 months of age and another at 4–6 years of age. One dose of Td is recommended for adolescents and adults as a TT booster every 10 years.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology