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Lockjaw - Symptoms of tetanus

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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The symptoms of tetanus usually develop within 4 to 21 days after infection with the Clostridium tetani bacteria (the incubation period). The average incubation period is about 10 days.

Most tetanus cases occur in people who:

  • were never vaccinated against the infection
  • did not complete the entire vaccination schedule (three initial injections followed by two booster doses that are given 10 years apart)
  • inject illegal drugs such as heroin

Read more about tetanus vaccination.

Muscle spasms and stiffness

Stiffness in your jaw muscles is usually the first symptom of tetanus to develop. This is sometimes known as lockjaw. It can make it difficult for you to open your mouth.

Muscle spasms and stiffness spread from your jaw into your neck and limbs over 24 to 72 hours.

Muscle spasms in your neck can make swallowing difficult (dysphagia). In the most serious cases, severe breathing difficulties could develop. This may lead to suffocation.

Other symptoms

Other symptoms associated with a tetanus infection include:

  • high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • sweating
  • rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)

If tetanus is not treated, it can cause serious complications that can be fatal, for example because of heart failure.

Read more about complications of tetanus.

Medical Review: July 15, 2013
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