What is Neonatal Tetanus?

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  • Written By: Lindsey Rivas
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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Neonatal tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a disease caused by exposure to bacteria present in soil. The symptoms include muscle spasms, rigid body, and convulsions. Infected infants can receive treatment, but early diagnosis is critical for survival. Neonatal tetanus is easily preventable through vaccines and sterile delivery conditions. The disease is common in rural areas and undeveloped countries, and it has an extremely high mortality rate for infants.

The bacteria that causes neonatal tetanus is called clostridium tetani. It produces a neurotoxin, or poison, when it grows in dead tissues such as dirty wounds or umbilical cord stumps. Once the bacteria enters the body, it multiplies quickly and produces the toxin. Infants might be exposed to it when the umbilical cord is cut with a dirty instrument or if delivery occurs in conditions that are not sterile.

The symptoms of neonatal tetanus might not appear for several days after exposure to the bacteria. Infants with the disease typically experience muscle spasms and stiffness, especially in the jaw, and it can also spread to the abdomen, arms, and thighs. As the disease progresses, it is common for infants to have painful convulsions and trouble breathing. They also have difficulty sucking and swallowing, and in many cases their mouths cannot open, which leads to starvation and death.


Neonatal tetanus can be treated, but early diagnosis and treatment is critical for any chance of survival. Antibiotics can be used to kill the bacteria and neutralize the toxins. Medications can also help control the muscle spasms. Also, wounds where the bacteria may have entered should be cleaned and the dead tissue removed.

The administration of vaccines can be done to prevent neonatal tetanus. In most developed countries, infants receive tetanus vaccines by the age of 2, and booster shots are done periodically throughout the rest of their lives. If they have not been previously vaccinated, infants may receive tetanus vaccines after getting an injury that makes them susceptible to disease in order to try and prevent it. Vaccines can also be given to pregnant women before or during pregnancy so they can pass immunity to their babies. In addition, it is important to have sanitary conditions for delivering infants and use proper umbilical cord care to keep it clean.

In contrast to developed countries where neonatal tetanus is very rare, infants are at a higher risk of becoming infected with the disease in countries that do not vaccinate or where births happen in non-sterile environments. It is most common for infants to get the disease in the first month of life, and it is fatal in most cases. Even with treatment, many infants with neonatal tetanus will die within a few days after the onset of symptoms.



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