Tetanus antitoxin is an absolutely certain preventive if the patient is inoculated within one or two hours after the injury has occurred. It destroys the toxins or poisons that are spread through the system by the tetanus bacilli, and which, if unchecked, paralyze the nerves and stiffen the joints of spine and jaw until death results.
No other virulent organism is more widely distributed in nature than the tetanus germ. It is found in the litter of every barnyard and in the dust of every city street. The prongs of every pitchfork harbor it, and it is in the earth of every field and flower garden. It has been found in dirty clothes, on shoe soles, in gutters, on the surface of fruit, on pocket knives and even in seawater.
But this bacillus, though well-nigh omnipresent, is far from vigorous. Sunlight and fresh air are its chief enemies. It is also easily killed by most of the common antiseptics. When the bacilli are introduced into the wound, the body makes an effort to combat them and prevent their entrance into the blood-stream. If the wound is an open one, into which light and air may enter, the bacilli are killed soon and their dead bodies are expelled.
But in case the bacilli happens to get into a deep or ragged wound, they increase rapidly and begin to send their toxins into all parts of the body.
Lockjaw (tetanus) infections
This is what often happens on the Fourth of July when some luckless small boy wounds himself with a toy pistol. The powder makes a ragged, confused wound and drives into its depths the tetanus bacilli that happen to be living upon his hand. Instead of sending for a doctor and having the wound properly washed and dressed, the boy’s mother binds it up herself, perhaps with a dirty rag — and tells him to stop crying. This means that the lockjaw germs are left where the powder forced them — deep down in the lacerated tissue, among dead and dying skin cells and cut off from all light and air.
Protected thus, and living under conditions ideally adapted to their welfare, the bacilli begin to multiply and poison the nervous system. Such a wound should always be cleaned thoroughly with carbolic acid and watched daily. This can be done only by an experienced physician. And then tetanus antitoxin should be injected into the patient’s veins to kill the poisons as fast as they are given off by the bacilli.
If this is done when the wound occurs, the patient recovers. If delayed until lockjaw symptoms appear, antitoxin is of little help.
An amount just sufficient to confer immunity in the case of a suspected wound costs $1, and the amount needed to arrest an ordinary case costs from $25 to $40.
Whenever one sustains a lacerated wound, it is advisable to wash it thoroughly and at once with soap and water and to flood it, before binding it up, with common peroxide of hydrogen. The peroxide gives off oxygen, which causes the death of all tetanus germs it reaches. After this has been done, the wound should be covered with a strip of the antiseptic bandage sold at low cost by all drug stores.
A clean, open wound, which bleeds freely, is little apt to harbor the germs of lockjaw. Unless the flow of blood is excessive, it is well to make no effort to stop it. It will cease of itself in a few moments.
It is well to have a doctor dress all wounds, no matter how small they may be. He alone is capable of washing them as they should be washed and of estimating the likelihood of infection. His fee is money well invested. It may buy only insurance against a long, terrible, painful and expensive illness — and then again, it may buy insurance against death.