Diphtheria: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of your nose and throat. Diphtheria causes a swollen glands, sore throat, weakness, and fever. But the major sign of diphtheria is a sheet of thick, gray material covering the back of your throat, which can block your airway, causing difficulties in breathing. The vaccination against diphtheria has made it very rare in most countries.

READ ALSO: Whooping Cough: Symptoms, Complications, and Treatment

If left untreated for long, diphtheria can damage your kidney, nervous system, and heart. Diphtheria can be treated with medication, but even with treatment, diphtheria can be deadly.

Symptoms of Diphtheria

The symptoms of diphtheria usually begin two to five days after a person becomes infected and may include:

  • A sore throat
  • A thick, gray membrane covering your throat and tonsils
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Malaise
  • Swollen glands in your neck
  • Nasal discharge
  • Fever and chills

Skin (cutaneous) diphtheria

A second type of diphtheria can affect the skin, causing redness, swelling, and pain associated with other bacterial skin infections. Ulcers covered by a gray membrane also may develop in cutaneous diphtheria.

READ ALSO: 10 Natural Remedies for Sore Throat

Cutaneous diphtheria occurs in the United States, especially among people with poor hygiene who live in crowded conditions, although it’s more common in tropical climates.

Causes of Diphtheria

Diphtheria is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Usually C. diphtheriae multiplies on or near the surface of the mucous membranes of the throat. C. diphtheriae spreads via three routes:

  • Airborne droplets:When an infected person sneeze or cough, they release a mist of contaminated droplets which people nearby may breathe in. Diphtheria spreads efficiently this way, particularly in crowded conditions.
  • Using personal items of a contaminated person:People can catch diphtheria from handling the items an infected person’s used tissues, drinking from the infected person’s unwashed glass or coming into similarly close contact with other items.
  • Contaminated household items:Diphtheria can also spread on shared household items such as towels or toys.

You can also come in contact with diphtheria-causing bacteria by touching an infected wound.

READ ALSO: Experts Advice on Tonsil and Adenoid Removal in Kids

Risk factors

People who are at increased risk of contracting diphtheria include:

  • People living in crowded or unsanitary conditions
  • Children and adults who don’t have up-to-date immunizations
  • Anyone who travels to an area where diphtheria is endemic


If left untreated, diphtheria can lead to:

  • Heart damage: The diphtheria toxin may spread through your bloodstream and damage other tissues in your body, such as your heart muscle, causing such complications as inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis). Heart damage from myocarditis may be slight, showing up as minor abnormalities on an electrocardiogram, or severe, leading to congestive heart failure and sudden death.
  • Breathing problems: The bacteria that causes diphtheria may produce a toxin which destroys tissue in the immediate area of infection such as the nose and throat. The infection produces a tough, gray-colored membrane which is made of dead cells, bacteria and other substances. This membrane can impede breathing.
  • Nerve damage: Nerve damage can be caused by the toxin. The main targets are nerves to the throat, where poor nerve conduction may cause difficulty swallowing. Nerves to the arms and legs also may become inflamed, causing muscle weakness.

Most people with diphtheria survive these complications, but recovery is a lot slow.

When to see a doctor

Call your family doctor immediately if you or your child has been exposed to someone with diphtheria. If you’re not sure whether you or your child has been vaccinated against diphtheria, schedule an appointment.

Preventing Diphtheria

Diphtheria was a common illness in young children. The disease is treatable and also preventable with a vaccine.

The diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with vaccines for tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The three-in-one vaccine is known as the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. The latest version of this vaccine is known as the DTaP vaccine for children and the Tdap vaccine for adolescents and adults.

READ ALSO: 6 Best Remedies For Cold Sore

Diphtheria vaccine may come with some side effects. Some children may experience drowsiness, fussiness, mild fever, or tenderness at the injection site after a DTaP shot. Rarely, the DTaP vaccine causes serious complications in a child, such as shock, seizures, or an allergic reaction.


A sick child with a sore throat and a gray membrane covering the tonsils and throat may be diagnosed with diphtheria. Growth of C. diphtheriae in a laboratory culture of material from the throat membrane helps to confirm the diagnosis.

READ ALSO: HPV In Your Mouth, What Does It Look Like?

Doctors can also take a sample of tissue from an infected wound and have it tested in a laboratory to check for the type of diphtheria that affects the skin (cutaneous diphtheria).


Doctors treat diphtheria immediately with these medications:

  • An antitoxin: The infected child or adult would receive an antitoxin which is injected into a vein or muscle to neutralizes the diphtheria toxin already circulating in the body.
  • Antibiotics:Antibiotics is also used for the treatment of diphtheria is also treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin or erythromycin. Antibiotics destroy bacteria in the body, clearing up infections.

Children and adults with diphtheria may need to be hospitalized. They may be isolated in an intensive care unit because diphtheria can spread easily to anyone not immunized against the disease.


Source: Mayoclinic

Disclaimer: The content provided on healthdiary365.com is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *