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Symptoms and Complications

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Tetanus is often called "lockjaw" because one of the most common signs of this infection is tightening of the jaw muscles. Tetanus infection can lead to serious health problems, including being unable to open the mouth and having trouble swallowing and breathing.

Symptoms

Symptoms of tetanus include:

Boy holding jaw in pain.

The first sign is most commonly spasms of the muscles of the jaw, or "lockjaw."

  • Jaw cramping
  • Sudden, involuntary muscle tightening (muscle spasms) — often in the stomach
  • Painful muscle stiffness all over the body
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Jerking or staring (seizures)
  • Headache
  • Fever and sweating
  • Changes in blood pressure and a fast heart rate

Complications

Serious health problems that can happen because of tetanus include:

  • Uncontrolled/involuntary tightening of the vocal cords (laryngospasm)
  • Broken bones (fractures)
  • Infections gotten by a patient during a hospital visit (hospital-acquired infections)
  • Blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a blood clot that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream (pulmonary embolism)
  • Pneumonia, a lung infection, that develops by breathing in foreign materials (aspiration pneumonia)
  • Breathing difficulty, possibly leading to death (1 to 2 in 10 cases are fatal)
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