Doctors diagnose tetanus based on a physical exam, medical and vaccination history, and the signs and symptoms of muscle spasms, muscle rigidity and pain. A laboratory test would likely be used only if your doctor suspects another condition causing the signs and symptoms.
There's no cure for tetanus. A tetanus infection requires emergency and long-term supportive care while the disease runs its course. Treatment consists of wound care, medications to ease symptoms and supportive care, usually in an intensive care unit.
The disease progresses for about two weeks, and recovery can last about a month.
Care for your wound requires cleaning to remove dirt, debris or foreign objects that may be harboring bacteria. Your care team will also clear the wound of any dead tissue that could provide an environment in which bacteria can grow.
- Antitoxin therapy is used to target toxins that have not yet attacked nerve tissues. This treatment, called passive immunization, is a human antibody to the toxin.
- Sedatives that slow the function of the nervous system can help control muscle spasms.
- Vaccination with one of the standard tetanus vaccinations helps your immune system fight the toxins.
- Antibiotics, given either orally or by injection, may help fight tetanus bacteria.
- Other drugs. Other medications might be used to regulate involuntary muscle activity, such as your heartbeat and breathing. Morphine might be used for this purpose as well as for sedation.
Supportive therapies include treatments to make sure your airway is clear and to provide breathing assistance. A feeding tube into the stomach is used to provide nutrients. The care environment is intended to reduce sounds, light or other possible triggers of generalized spasms.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Proper wound care is important for any cut or wound. Seek medical care if you have a puncture wound, a deep cut, an animal bite, a foreign object in your wound, or a wound contaminated with dirt, soil, feces, rust or saliva.
If you're unsure when you last had a tetanus vaccine, seek medical care. Contaminated or more-serious wounds require a vaccination booster if it's been five or more years since your last tetanus shot.
If you have a minor wound, these steps will help prevent infections:
- Control bleeding. Apply direct pressure to stop bleeding.
- Clean the wound. After the bleeding stops, rinse the wound with a saline solution, bottled water or clear running water.
- Use antibiotics. Apply a thin layer of an antibiotic cream or ointment to discourage bacterial growth and infection.
- Cover the wound. Bandages can keep the wound clean and keep harmful bacteria out. Keep the wound covered until a scab forms. If you cannot clean the wound thoroughly, do not cover it and instead seek medical care.
- Change the dressing. Rinse the wound, apply antibiotic ointment, and replace the bandage at least once a day or whenever the dressing becomes wet or dirty.
- Manage adverse reactions. If the antibiotic causes a rash, stop using it. If you're allergic to the adhesive used in most bandages, switch to adhesive-free dressings or sterile gauze and paper tape.