What is Diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a disease that is infectious and is caused by bacteria from the Corynebacterium species.  If it is severe it can cause other problems by affected the nervous system and the heart. It can come with skin infections. The most severe symptoms of diphtheria are cause by exotoxin that is produced by the bacteria.

What are the Symptoms of Diphtheria?

Diphtheria symptoms are very similar to a upper respiratory viral infection but they get worse after 2-5 days.

Symptoms include

These symptoms typically include fever and sore throat, headaches, weakness, difficulty swallowing, swollen lymph nodes (appear similar to mumps), difficulty breathing, and a cough. A psudomembrane might appear over the nasal tissues, pharynx, and tonsil as diphtheria becomes worse. If untreated this can move to the larynx and trachea and cause an obstruction of the airway and even death.

Cutaneous diphtheria can be even worse with reddish lesions that are very painful. They can become non healing ulcers and are sometimes covered by a grayish membrane.

Diphtheria Causes

Diphtheria is caused by the bacteria corynebacterium diphitheriae. This bacteria can enter the body in a number of ways, but it typically occurs between humans through coughing or sneezing. The aerosols of bacteria are inhaled by unassuming persons. It may also spread through physical contact and through other bodily fluids such as sweat and saliva. Diphtheria may also be the result of infection from animals. Pets and wild animals often carry the bacteria and this can enable the bacteria to find a human host.

Infection is known to occur as the result of touching inanimate objects as well. Particularly, there appears to be a strong likelihood of acquiring it from wooden surfaces and couches. These materials are porous and allow bacteria to breed uninterrupted by cold and other limiting factors. Poor sanitation has caused epidemics of diphtheria in the absence of good control of contamination.

How is Diphtheria Treated?

Treatment for diphtheria involves two strategies, both are more effective if treated early on.

Treatment includes

Antibiotics are one of the treatments. A doctor will usually prescribe erythromycin first as long as the patient is over 6 months of age. For patients 6 months of age or younger, intramuscular penicillin will be prescribed. After 48 hours of antibiotics, the patient will no longer be infectious but until that time they should be isolated to prevent contaminating others.

The other treatment that may be suggested is a diphtheria antitoxin but it is only available from the CDC. This binds the diphtheria toxin and reduces the progression of the disease, preventing it from attaching to other cells in the body.

Diphtheria Prevention

The best way to prevent diphtheria is to prevent the transmission of the bacteria behind it. Persons who are infected with corynebacterium diphitheriae should cover their coughs and sneezes. This can keep the disease from spreading too quickly in groups. Other important measures to be taken revolve around cleaning objects that might contain corynebacterium diphitheriae bacteria. Utmost care in cleaning tables, chairs, and counter tops is absolutely necessary to prevent the disease. Even if a surface doesn’t appear dirty, it’s better to clean it up in order to prevent it from potentially serving as a vector for diphtheria.

In recent years, vaccines have been developed to prevent corynebacterium diphitheriae infections. Quinvaxem is an example of one of five major vaccines developed to prevent this disease. So far, it is incredibly effective against the disease. When combined with the other four vaccines, it can keep children from developing diphtheria even as adults.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017
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