McClung, Leland S. Department of Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
Last reviewed:July 2020
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An infectious disease, also known as lockjaw, caused by the exotoxin of Clostridium tetani. Tetanus is a consequential bacterial infection that often leads to painful muscle contractions. The causative agent of tetanus is Clostridium tetani (see illustration), whose endospores (asexual spores) produce a poisonous exotoxin (a toxin excreted by a microorganism). In general, C. tetani may be isolated from fertile soil and the intestinal tract or fecal material of humans and other animals. Infection commonly follows dirt contamination of deep wounds or other injured tissues, including wounds due to war injuries, automobile accidents, burns, or septic abortion (an infection of the uterus before, during, or after an abortion) in which tissue necrosis is present. Any deep puncture wound that is contaminated by soil or feces is suspect. In addition, tetanus neonatorum (neonatal tetanus), which occurs if the cut surface of a newborn's umbilical cord is not properly treated, is frequent in nonindustrialized countries. Use of understerilized syringe needles by drug users is also recognized as a cause of tetanus. Because tetanus can lead to locking of the neck and jaw muscles of a person, making it difficult to open the mouth or swallow, the disease is often referred to as lockjaw. See also: Clostridium; Infection; Medical bacteriology; Muscular system disorders; Toxin
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