By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection that affects the nose, throat and sometimes the skin. Diphtheria is caused by infection with the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which is an anaerobic Gram-positive bacteria. The disease may be spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual and through inhaling infected particulates present in the air.
Some of the symptoms of diphtheria infection include:
- High fever of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
- Sore and painful throat
- Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath
- Development of a greyish–white membrane in the throat.
Cases of suspected diphtheria can be confirmed using a swab sample that takes a small number of cells from the throat, nose or skin wound. The sample is then checked under a microscope for the presence of C. diptheriae.
Diphtheria needs to be rapidly treated in order to prevent serious complications of the disease and treatment may be administered before test results confirming the diagnosis have been received. This is called presumptive therapy. In hospital, patients suspected of having diphtheria are isolated from other patients and treated with antibiotics and an antitoxin.
Serious complications of this infection claim the lives of around 10% to 15% of affected individuals and examples of these life threatening complications include inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), neurological conditions and breathing problems. Children are particularly at risk of developing these complications.
The best way to prevent diphtheria is to ensure vaccinations are up to date. Children are vaccinated routinely under the NHS childhood vaccination schedule but adults who have not received a booster in more than 10 years should arrange a top-up if they are travelling to regions where diphtheria is endemic.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2014