Diphtheria

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP
    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Dr. Balentine received his undergraduate degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine graduating in1983. He completed his internship at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia and his Emergency Medicine residency at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, where he served as chief resident.

Bacterial Infections 101 Pictures Slideshow

Diphtheria facts

  • Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that usually produce exotoxins that damage human tissue.
  • The initial symptoms of diphtheria are flu-like but worsen to include fever, swallowing problems, hoarseness, enlarged lymph nodes, coughing, and shortness of breath; some patients may have skin involvement, producing skin ulcers.
  • The history of diphtheria dates back to Hippocrates; once the organisms were identified and found to produce exotoxins, the development of vaccines have markedly reduced diphtheria worldwide.
  • The cause of diphtheria is an infection by Corynebacterium species; the most severe infections are due to those Corynebacterium strains that produce exotoxins.
  • The highest risk factor for developing diphtheria is not getting immunized against the disease; other factors include crowding, immunosuppression, and direct or indirect contact with an infected individual.
  • Diphtheria is diagnosed by the patient's history and physical examination; culture of Corynebacterium from the patient yields a definitive diagnosis although patient should be treated if diphtheria is even suspected.
  • The treatment of diphtheria involves early administration of antibiotics; the use of antitoxin, made in horses, is done to neutralize Corynebacterium exotoxin that has not bound to human tissue.
  • Complications of diphtheria include heart-rhythm problems, sepsis, organ damage, and breathing problems that can be severe enough to cause death.
  • If treated appropriately and early in the infection, the prognosis for diphtheria is usually good; however, if complications develop, the prognosis decreases, especially if sepsis and/or cardiac involvement occurs.
  • It is possible to prevent diphtheria; the main way is to appropriately vaccinate individuals with one of the four major vaccine types available.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the Corynebacterium species of bacteria and is most often associated with a sore throat, fever, and the development of an adherent membrane on the tonsils and/or nasopharynx. Severe infections can affect other organ systems such as the heart and the nervous system. In addition, some patients with diphtheria can also have skin infections. Exotoxin produced by the bacteria is an important component in causing diphtheria's more severe symptoms.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/22/2016

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