The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease


Tetanus is a disease that affects the nervous system, characterized by painful tightening and spasms of the muscles. It is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, which produces a neurotoxin when growing in the absence of oxygen. The spores of these bacteria are plentiful in the environment and affect humans when they get trapped in dirty wounds and release neurotoxins in the body.

At the onset of tetanus, patients usually develop headaches and spasms in the jaw muscles. This can lead to “lockjaw,” or a tightening of the jaw, until the patient can no longer open the mouth or swallow. As the disease progresses, spasms occur in other muscles, and patients sometimes experience muscle dysfunction that resembles seizures. Infections should be treated immediately; 1 out of every 10 tetanus cases results in death.

There is no cure for tetanus but medication can be used to ease its symptoms. Antibiotics are prescribed to fight the tetanus bacteria and antitoxins can fight toxins that have not yet bonded to and affected nervous tissue. Sedatives and other medications can help regulate muscle activity and prevent spasms.

Tetanus can easily be prevented by the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine, which is typically administered to young children. Adults should receive tetanus boosters every 10 years and international travelers should get them before leaving their home country. Other precautions include cleaning wounds carefully to remove dirt and foreign objects that may carry tetanus spores.


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What do you know about infectious disease?

Which are larger?

  • Correct!

    Bacteria are 10 to 100 times larger than viruses.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    Bacteria are 10 to 100 times larger than viruses.

Infectious Disease Defined


An increase in the occurrence of a particular disease over a very large region, such as a continent or the entire globe, that is greater than what is expected over a given period of time.

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