A rare throat infection that can cause breathing difficulties

  • More common in children
  • Gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

Now rare in developed countries, diphtheria was a common cause of death in children until immunization became routine. In this disease, the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae multiplies in the throat and may release toxins into the blood. The infection is usually transmitted through airborne droplets from coughs or sneezes of infected people.

Diphtheria bacteria may also infect the skin. This form of the disease, known as cutaneous diphtheria, is more common in tropical countries but it can affect people elsewhere. Outbreaks of diphtheria tend to occur among overcrowded communities.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of diphtheria may develop up to 7 days after infection and include:

  • Sore throat.

  • Fever.

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

  • In many cases, a grey membrane that grows across the throat, causing difficulty in breathing.

In the cutaneous form of the disorder, deep sores may develop. If diphtheria is not treated, bacterial toxins may spread in the blood and cause potentially fatal complications such as acute heart failure and paralysis.

What might be done?

Diphtheria may be diagnosed from the symptoms, but a throat swab is taken for confirmation. Most people recover fully if treated immediately with antibiotics and antitoxin injections in hospital. Routine immunization in children and young adults provides protection against diphtheria. Adults may need booster doses for travel purposes.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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