Diseases and Disorders

Diphtheria: What You Need to Know

Last updated on October 20th, 2022 at 07:44 am

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria. It is spread through respiratory droplets from person to person. Learn more about this deadly disease!

What is Diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an acute bacterial disease caused by Corynebacterium Diphtheriae. It is highly contagious and spreads in overcrowded areas. The disease is transmitted through respiratory secretions or droplets in the air. The bacteria may enter the body through the nose or mouth. They may also enter through a break in the skin and may colonise wound surfaces.

What are the causes of diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacterial microorganism known as Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Other Corynebacterium species can be responsible, but this is rare. Some strains of this bacterium produce a toxin, and it is this toxin that causes the most serious complications of diphtheria. The bacteria produce a toxin because they themselves are infected by a certain type of virus called a phage.

The toxin that is released;

  • inhibits the production of proteins by cells
  • destroys the tissue at the site of the infection
  • leads to membrane formation,
  • gets taken up into the bloodstream and distributed around the body’s tissues
  • causes inflammation of the heart and nerve damage
  • can cause low platelet counts, or thrombocytopenia, and produce protein in the urine is a condition called proteinuria

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

The bacteria multiply in the throat or on the wound. They may form a membrane in the throat and over the tonsils. Other common symptoms include;

  • breathing difficulty
  • a husky voice
  • enlarged lymph glands in the neck (Bull neck)
  • nasal drainage
  • low-grade fever,
  • an increased heart rate,

Diphtheria may often have symptoms because of the toxins produced by the causative bacteria resulting in Diphtheritic myocarditis (toxic damage to the heart muscles) and neuritis (toxic damage to the peripheral nerves).

How diphtheria transmitted?

Diphtheria is an infection spread only among humans. It is contagious by direct physical contact with;

  • droplets breathed out into the air,
  • secretions from the nose and throat, such as mucus and saliva
  • infected skin lesions
  • objects, such as bedding or clothes an infected person has used, in rare cases

The infection can spread from an infected patient to any mucous membrane in a new person, but the toxic infection most often attacks the lining of the nose and throat.

How to diagnosis diphtheria?

The appearance of the membrane in the throat is usually quite distinctive. A swab sample taken from the back of the throat is checked for the bacteria causing the disease. The bacteria are isolated and grown to see if they are producing the toxin.

How diphtheria treatment made?

The goal of treatment is to neutralize the effect of the toxins, eliminate further toxin production, control the local infection, and prevent transmission. Penicillin is usually effective in treating diphtheria before it releases toxins into the blood. However, one must neutralize the Diphtheria toxin circulating in the bloodstream. This is done by giving an antitoxin in combination with the antibiotic. Rarely, a tracheostomy (a breathing tube inserted into the windpipe by an operation) may be needed if the patient has severe breathing difficulties. A cardiac pacemaker may have to be given to the patient if there is a severe slowing of the heart rate.

How to prevent diphtheria?

Immunization is the best preventive measure. Immunization against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus is given by a combined vaccine – the DPT (triple) vaccine. Three doses are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. A booster dose is given at 1-1/2 and 5 and 8-10 years of age.

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