Tetanus: a review

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Tetanus is caused by the organism Clostridium tetani, which produces tetanospasmin, a neurotoxin responsible for the clinical manifestations of muscle rigidity and reflex spasms. The majority of cases follow an anaerobic wound infection associated with trauma. Incubation period is usually 3 days to 3 weeks. 75% of patients present with trismus. Reflex spasms are seen in 70% of patients and characterize the severity of the disease. Treatment involves removal of the offending organism, neutralization of free neurotoxin, controlling rigidity and reflex spasm, and minimizing complications. Diazepam may be used alone in mild cases. Severe cases require the addition of non-depolarizing neuromuscular blocking agents and mechanical ventilation. Respiratory complications occur early and require aggressive airway management. A serious, late complication is the syndrome of sympathetic nervous system overactivity that is treated with α and β blockade. High mortality rates seen in the United States may be due to delays in diagnosis and lack of familiarity with treatment. The disease is preventable with adequate immunization.

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