Diphtheria

Diphtheria

Pronounced: Dif-THEER-e-uh

Definition

Diphtheria is a life-threatening infection. It can cause heart, nerve, and kidney damage. It needs to be treated right away.

Causes

This illness is caused by certain bacteria. It spreads from person-to-person contact. This can happen by:

  • Inhaling bacteria after a person coughs or sneezes
  • Using personal items such as tissues or drinking glasses
  • Having skin contact

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk are:

  • Not having had:
    • A diphtheria vaccine, or
    • A booster dose in the past 10 years
  • Having a weak immune system

Symptoms

Symptoms of diphtheria may be mild or severe.

They may include:

  • A gray coating in the back of the throat
  • Sore throat or problems swallowing
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck
  • Breathing problems
  • Tiredness

Swollen Glands in the Neck

Swollen lymph node
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Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. A nose or throat swab can confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Diphtheria will be treated right away, even if test results are not ready.

Treatment includes:

  • An antitoxin to stop damage to the body
  • Antibiotics to treat the infection
  • Isolation and bed rest

Prevention

A vaccine will prevent the disease.

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
https://www.cdc.gov
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
https://www.niaid.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca
Public Health Agency of Canada
https://www.canada.ca

References:

Diphtheria. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Diphtheria. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/diphtheria. Accessed Februsary 2, 2021.
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Sharma NC, Efstratiou A, et al. Diphtheria. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2019;5(1):81.
Td (tetanus, diphtheria) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Last reviewed September 2020 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 2/2/2021

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