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What is Lockjaw?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Lockjaw is the common name for bacterial disease known as tetanus. Most people are familiar with the disease simply from getting an inoculation if they become injured and their skin is broken. Not getting a vaccine means lockjaw can develop, which is characterized as a muscle tightening and stiffness that starts in the jaw or neck but can easily move to other parts of the body.

In order to develop lockjaw, there has to be a deep wound, which is why the vaccine is often administered as a precaution to those who are injured with deep cuts. In particular, it is common when there are chances of the cut being exposed to animal feces. However, the condition has also developed in very clean and sterile environments, including as a result of surgical cuts.

For those who feel they may have been exposed to tetanus, the best bet to prevent lockjaw symptoms is to get vaccinated. Generally, doctors recommend the vaccination once every ten years. However, most do not keep track of when their last shot was, so out of precaution, those injured will often get another shot if they sustain a type of injury that could lead to the condition. Incubation of the disease usually takes eight days, though it can take few as three days or as many as three weeks. Due to this short incubation period, it is vital to get a vaccine as soon after getting a deep wound as possible.

The best treatment option is vaccination. However, once symptoms start to develop, vaccination becomes pointless. In such cases, the symptoms are the only thing that can be treated until the disease runs its course. This will include treating spasms to make them less severe. If the disease progresses to this point, hospitalization will likely be required. This is a severe condition that can lead to death because the spasms can limit the ability to breathe. In fact, death occurs in one out of ten cases when lockjaw develops.

Those most at risk for the condition include the very young and very old. Even in cases where an infant has not been injured, the disease can be passed from mother to child. This represents a large number of infant mortality cases in lesser developed countries. While it is less serious in healthy adults, lockjaw's danger should not be underestimated.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon95853 — On Jul 13, 2010

My 27 year old son has lockjaw and waiting to see a specialist. what should we expect?

By jabuka — On Apr 22, 2010

Children, or rather babies used to get 3 doses of of shots. It was a combination of lockjaw (tetanus) pertussis (whooping cough) and diphtheria.

I suppose this is still the practice.

Of course if a child cuts himself later on, than a booster is in order.

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