Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the nose and throat. It spreads easily and quickly from person to person, through sneezing or coughing, as well as through contaminated objects or food. Diphtheria is seen most often in children under the age of 5 and people older than 60.
Those living in crowded conditions and those without proper nourishment are most at risk, as are persons who haven’t received the diphtheria vaccine. Diphtheria is most prevalent in developing countries where the combined vaccination for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis isn’t available or mandated.
Symptoms of Diphtheria
Early symptoms of diphtheria include low-grade fever, swollen neck glands and an extremely sore throat. These symptoms are often dismissed as merely a case of sore throat. The bacteria that cause diphtheria can then lead to a thick coating over the nose, throat and airways. This coating is usually black or gray. It inhibits breathing and swallowing, making it very different from most respiratory viruses.
Along with difficulty breathing and swallowing, those with the disease may experience double vision, slurred speech and signs of shock as the infection progresses. Signs of shock include:
- Anxious appearance
- Pale, cold skin
- Rapid heartbeat
These diphtheria symptoms are all due to toxins caused by bacteria. These toxins can spread from the nose, throat and airways into the bloodstream. If this happens, it can lead to severe, life-threatening complications affecting organs such as the heart and kidneys. Nerve damage, leading to eventual paralysis, can be a result of such toxins in the bloodstream. If left untreated, 40 to 50 percent of people who reach this stage of diphtheria will likely die.
Prevention of Diphtheria
The most important step to the prevention of this disease is to give your child the diphtheria vaccine. Tetanus and pertussis are also included in this vaccination, known as DTaP, which stands for diphtheria, tetanus and (acellular) pertussis. Doses of the diphtheria vaccine are usually given at 2, 4 and 6 months of age. Booster shots are required at 12 to 18 months of age, and again at 4 to 6 years. Talk to your pediatrician if you believe your child may not be up to date on all doses of the diphtheria vaccine.
Treatment of Diphtheria
A throat culture will determine if a person definitely has diphtheria, in which case, hospitalization will be required to treat the infection. An anti-toxin will be given intravenously, and antibiotics will also be prescribed. A patient with diphtheria will need to be isolated. Your doctor will also determine if family members have received the diphtheria vaccine, or if they’ll need to be treated as well. Even after the medication has begun to work, doctors recommend four to six weeks of bed rest.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Staff. (2006). Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine: What you Need to know. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/vis/downloads/vis-tdap.pdf.
Dugdale, D. (2009). Diphtheria. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from the Medline Plus Web site: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001608.htm.
Klein, J. (2008). Infections: Diphtheria. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from the Kids Health Web site: http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/bacterial_viral/diphtheria.html#.