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By Dave Hall

For all you hypochondriacs out there, Dave Hall continues his regular look at a some of the more unusual medical conditions, as well as some you thought you knew all about.

This week: TETANUS.

Condition A common medical condition characterised by a prolonged contraction of muscle fibres, and often resulting in lockjaw. It usually occurs after a deep wound that is contaminated. Incubation for the disease is usually about a week, but ranges from 3 to 21 days. The first signs are often stiff jaw and neck muscles (the characteristic lockjaw), followed by increased temperature, sweating, high blood pressure, rapid heart rate and spasms, which can go on for months afterwards.

The condition is often verified using the ‘spatula test’, where the throat wall is touched with a soft spatula. If the jaw contracts on its own, then this is indicative of tetanus being present. Interestingly, the association with rusty nails is a bit of an old wives tale. Sure, it doesn’t help if it’s rusty, but a non-rusty nail can harbour the bacteria just as easily.

Contagion – Tetanus is the only vaccine-preventable disease that is infectious but is not contagious. This means you can’t catch if off other people, but you can contract the bacteria quite easily from a bacterial source.

Danger of death – In recent years, about 11% of reported cases have been fatal, most of these in unvaccinated people or those over 60. There are about one million cases of tetanus reported worldwide annually, causing about 300,000 to 500,000 deaths each year. 
Incurability? Immunisation and post-exposure treatment can quite easily prevent the tetanus infection. If you find yourself with the full condition, you can get antibiotics, although these reduce the bacteria count but have no effect on the toxin. Serious tetanus will need drugs, hospitalisation and intensive treatment, including a high calorie diet, needed because of the high burn up of calories by the constantly twitching muscles.

Likelihood of getting time off work If you can’t move your head and your body muscles are seizing up, you better take a bit of time off to straighten yourself out (quite literally).
Brag-ability You can certainly talk about it with your friends, but after a while talking will become harder and haaardeeerrr, untiiiiil yoooouuuu caaaaaan’t taaaaaaaalllkkkk. Don’t bother, just stay at home and ride the storm.

Overall ridiculousness Watch out for that rusty nail, and go and get yourself a booster, you should be having one every ten years.

More conditions to come soon:

Pertussis, Cat Scratch Fever and more.

Find more curious conditions in Doctor Doctor. If you can't wait for the next Doctor Doctor, then why not find a phunny phobia to keep you going?

Photo: Painting showing a patient suffering from tetanus, by Sir Charles Bell.

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28 Jun 2011
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