Definition

Diphtheria is a life-threatening infection that spreads easily. It is caused by bacteria. The infection most commonly attacks the tonsils, throat, and nose.

Diphtheria is a medical emergency that requires immediate care from your doctor. Not everyone who gets diphtheria shows signs of illness, though they may be able to infect others. The sooner it is treated, the better the outcome will be.

Causes

Diphtheria is caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The infection spreads from person to person through contact with:

  • Droplets of moisture that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person and breathed in by a non-infected person
  • Personal items, such as tissues or drinking glasses, that have been used by an infected person
  • Skin that is infected with diphtheria

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of getting diphtheria include:

  • Having never been immunized against diphtheria
  • Not having had a booster dose in the past ten years
  • Having a compromised immune system

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of diphtheria usually begin 2 to 5 days after a person is infected. The most obvious sign of diphtheria is a gray covering on the back of the throat. The covering can detach and block the airway. If left untreated, the bacteria can produce a poison that spreads through the body causing damage to the heart, nerves, and kidneys.

Symptoms include:

  • Sore throat and painful swallowing
  • Fever up to 103°F
  • Gray covering on the back of the throat
  • Cough, possibly a barking cough
  • Swollen glands in the neck
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weakness
  • Skin infection
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph node
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Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diphtheria will be suspected if the throat and tonsils are covered with a gray membrane.

Your doctor may need to test to confirm the diagnosis. This can be done by collecting a swab for culture or a tissue sample.

Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. If your doctor suspects diphtheria, your treatment will start right away, even before the lab results are returned. Treatment options include the following:

  • Antitoxin injection
  • Antibiotics
  • Isolation and bedrest

Prevention

The vaccine for diphtheria is safe and is effective at preventing the disease. All children with few exceptions should receive the DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. A single dose of Tdap vaccine is recommended for children aged 11 years or older, even if they did not receive the DTaP. A booster should be administered every 10 years after, or after exposure to tetanus if necessary.

If you or your child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to the doctor. There are catch-up schedules available.

Revision Information

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    http://www.cdc.gov

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

    http://www3.niaid.nih.gov

  • HealthLinkBC

    http://www.healthlinkbc.ca

  • Caring for Kids

    The Canadian Paediatric Society

    http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca

  • Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. 12th ed (May 2012). Published by the National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/index.html#order. Accessed August 6, 2013.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years—United States, 2013. MMWR . 2013;62:9-18. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/child-adolescent.html. Accessed August 6, 2013.

  • Recommended immunization schedule for persons aged 0 through 18 years—United States 2013. MMWR. 2013;62:2-8. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/downloads/child/mmwr-0-18yrs-catchup-schedule.pdf . Accessed August 6, 2013.

  • Td or Tdap vaccine: what you need to know. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td-tdap.pdf. Published January 24, 2012. Accessed August 6, 2013.

  • 1/24/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine from the advisory committee on immunization practices, 2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60(1):13-15.

  • 11/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Updated recommendations for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap) in pregnant women and persons who have or anticipate having close contact with an infant aged <12 months—Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60:1424-1426.

  • 4/1/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Bridges CB, Coyne-Beasley T, et al. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended immunization schedule for adults aged 19 years or older—United States, 2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014. 63(7):110-112.