Diphtheria is a serious—sometimes deadly—infection that forms in the mucous membranes of your nose and throat and sometimes on the skin. It’s caused by a bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
This bacteria spreads very easily from person to person—either through the air in small droplets or on surfaces. People that have the infection are highly contagious until 48 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
You could even get the bacteria from someone who is infected but doesn’t have any symptoms—a carrier. Carriers can spread the infection to others for up to four weeks. In new people, the bacteria can still develop into a serious infection, even though it was spread by someone who felt fine.
In developed countries like the U.S., there are very few cases of diphtheria because high vaccination rates have almost eliminated the disease. In these countries, you’re only at risk if you don’t have the diphtheria vaccine.
There are still many countries around the world, though, where diphtheria is a serious and common illness. In poorer places, it may be harder to get health care and vaccines. In addition, people live in close quarters and have less access to hygiene, which causes the disease to spread faster.
What Is Diphtheria?
Diphtheria was first named in 1826, but it has existed for a lot longer. The bacteria that cause diphtheria are unique because they produce a toxin that kills your cells. This makes it more deadly than some other forms of bacterial infection.
It used to be a major problem in the U.S. until the vaccine was developed and put into use in the 1920s.
Before the development of the vaccine, there were hundreds of thousands of cases throughout the country each year. In 1921, for example, there were over 15,000 deaths in the U.S. alone from diphtheria.
Today, there are still thousands of new cases of diphtheria around the world each year, and researchers believe that it’s underreported in the countries where infection rates are highest.
What Are the Symptoms of Diphtheria?
When the diphtheria bacteria grows in the mucous membranes of your nose and throat, it begins to produce a toxin in large quantities. This toxin kills your cells and creates a thick grey membrane—called a pseudomembrane—from dead cells, bacteria, waste products, and proteins.
This thick substance can coat your nasal tissues, tonsils, voice box, and the rest of your throat. It’s the most distinct symptom of diphtheria and can make it difficult to breathe.
From your throat, the toxin can get into your bloodstream and cause extensive damage to other tissues and organs throughout your body.
Possible symptoms from diphtheria include:
- A sore throat
- Swollen glands in your neck
- Difficulty breathing
- Slurred speech
- Fevers and chills
- Nasal discharge
- Eventual damage to organs—specifically, your heart, kidneys, and nervous system
A second type of diphtheria can also grow on your skin. This type of infection leads to painful, red, and swollen skin. Your skin could develop ulcers with a thick gray coating, but this kind of infection shouldn’t lead to any more complications, like organ damage.
What Is the Treatment for Diphtheria?
Diphtheria treatments include:
- Medications. You’ll immediately be given anti-toxins to combat the toxin produced by the bacteria, either through an injection or intravenously (with an IV). You’ll also need to take an antibiotic—typically penicillin—to kill any bacteria that are still in your system.
- A ventilator. You’ll only need this if your symptoms are very severe and make it difficult to breathe.
- Bedrest. Typically, you will need to rest for four to six weeks.
- Isolation. No one can come near you while you’re still infectious.
The doctor will also need to treat all of your immediate family members if you’re diagnosed with diphtheria. This will involve making sure that they all have the vaccine against diphtheria and giving them booster shots if they do. They’ll also be given antibiotics to make sure that the bacteria doesn’t spread.
Can You Recover from Diphtheria?
With treatment, it’s possible to fully recover from diphtheria. Your total recovery time will usually take from four to six weeks.
Even with treatment, you may not recover from diphtheria. Children under age 5 and adults over age 60 have an increased risk of dying from the disease.
Without treatment, you have a 50% chance of surviving. With treatment, around 90% of patients survive.
How Can Diphtheria Be Prevented?
Diphtheria can be prevented if you get a vaccine. There are at least four vaccines for diphtheria currently in use in the U.S. Each of these also prevents tetanus, and two of them are effective against whooping cough, too.
The vaccine is available for newborns as well as adults. In most countries, it’s part of the standard vaccination process for all newborn babies.
After adolescence, you can get a diphtheria booster every ten years. You should always get the booster before traveling to parts of the world that have high rates of diphtheria.
You should also get the vaccine during every pregnancy, regardless of whether or not you’ve gotten it before.
Immediately contact your doctor if you or any of your family members have been near someone with diphtheria. You should double-check your vaccination history and get a new booster if you haven’t had one in 10 years.