Clostridium Tetani: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Thomas Higginbotham

Tom has taught math / science at secondary & post-secondary, and a K-12 school administrator. He has a B.S. in Biology and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction.

Clostridium tetani is a bacterium found in soils throughout the world. It is difficult to kill and produces the powerful neurotoxin that causes tetanus. In this lesson, learn about this dynamic and potentially dangerous bacterium.

What is Clostridium tetani?

I had just fertilized the garden soil with clumpy cow manure. Using a pitchfork to break up the clods, I was about to go in for lunch. Raising the pitchfork to stick it upright in the ground, my kid shrieked suddenly. I turned my head while the pitchfork was descending, felt a pinch, and looked down. I was stuck into the ground, a pitchfork tine having gone clear through my foot.

It hurt, sure. But the sharp pain wasn't the real danger. The real danger would have come a week from then in the form of an infection that I had done everything right to get. Cow manure? Check. Soil? Check. Dirty large puncture wound with item that had been swimming around in the manure filled soil? Check. I was well on my way to a first-class case of tetanus.

As its species name suggests, Clostridium tetani is the source for the illness tetanus. C. tetani is a gram-positive, anaerobic bacterium that forms spores that are resistant to common techniques, such as heat and antiseptics, making them very hard to kill. C. tetani are found most commonly in soils and in the digestive tracts of many animals that are farmed, such as cows and sheep. In fact, many agricultural workers commonly harbor C. tetani on their skin, where it is harmless, since it is under aerobic conditions. However, if the bacterium enters the body, where it can thrive anaerobically in body tissues, it can unleash its harmful effects.

Taking a look at my ill-fated pitchfork plunge, there were certainly loads of C. tetani spores in not only the soil but also in the manure. Thus, they were plentiful on the pitchfork that I had just skewered through my foot. My foot wound was certainly inoculated with C. tetani (among a host of other potentially harmful bacteria).

Tetanus Causes and Symptoms

The cause of tetanus is the neurotoxin tetanospasmin, a toxin that is among the most potent known. This toxin can induce muscle spasms that can range in severity from mild to fatal. When someone contracts tetanus, it typically starts in the face and neck, often beginning in the jaw, aslockjaw. The spasm conditions then extend to other parts of the body, including whole body and back spasms so powerful that they can break bones.

Specific symptoms can include risus sardonicus (a rigid smile), trismus (lock-jaw), and opisthotonus (rigid, arched back).

Opisthotonus (arched back) resulting from Tetanus

The number of cases of tetanus in the United States has decreased dramatically from approximately 600 cases per year to around 30 cases per year since the 1940s when the tetanus vaccine was added to recommended vaccination schedules. Additionally, fatality rates from tetanus have decreased from approximately 30%-10% in that same time period.

At the time of 'the Great Pitchfork Incident,' I had been vaccinated but had not kept up with my booster shots. Thus, I was at an increased risk to contact tetanus. At the emergency room, the doctor explained that I needed to pay attention to my body for the next several weeks, and that if tetanus were to occur, it would most likely begin within a week.

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