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What is tetanus?

If you receive a bite from a dog or other animal in New Jersey, you may have some concern about contracting rabies. This is entirely valid, especially if the creature was a wild animal or a stray with no documented vaccination history. Unfortunately, however, rabies is not the only possible infection you need to worry about after an animal bite. There is also the possibility that you could contract tetanus.

You may think of tetanus as a disease that you get from scratching yourself with a rusty piece of metal, and while that is one possible way of contracting tetanus, it is not the only possible vector. According to the Mayo Clinic, tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by spores of a particular strain called Clostridium tetani, which occur in animal feces as well as soil. Because animals do not have the cleanest mouths, a bite from an animal can transfer these spores from the creature's teeth deep into your bodily tissues. 

Once the bacteria start incubating inside your body, they produce a substance called tetanospasmin, a powerful toxin that affects the nerves in your body that control your muscle movement. Symptoms of a tetanus infection include stiffness or spasm in the muscles of the abdomen, neck or jaw, which is why the disease also goes by the colloquial name of "lockjaw." 

Tetanus infection is potentially deadly because the muscle spasms it causes can interfere with your ability to breathe. However, after a dog bite or other possible exposure, it can seven to 10 days for an infection to develop. For this reason, doctors treating victims of animal bites typically recommend administration of a tetanus vaccine, if the victim has never received one, or a booster shot, if the vaccination is not current, as soon as possible after a bite to prevent a tetanus infection from developing. 

If a tetanus infection does develop, there is no cure, and many tetanus patients do not survive. However, because most people in the United States receive the vaccine as children, as well as boosters on a 10-year basis, tetanus infections in the United States are relatively rare. 

The information in this article is not intended as legal advice but provided for educational purposes only. 

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