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.

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What is the treatment for diphtheria?

There are two treatment strategies that are used for patients diagnosed with diphtheria. Both are most effective when utilized early in the disease process. The first treatment is antibiotics. The CDC recommends erythromycin as the first-line therapy for patients older than 6 months of age. For patients who are younger or who cannot take erythromycin, the CDC recommends intramuscular penicillin. Patients usually become noninfectious after about 48 hours of antibiotic treatment and should be held in isolation until that time to prevent spread of the disease.

The second treatment is administration of diphtheria antitoxin. However, this antitoxin is only available from the CDC. Diphtheria antitoxin reduces the progression of the disease by binding diphtheria toxin that has not yet attached to the body's cells. The antitoxin is derived from horses, so recipients should not be treated if they are allergic. Your doctor will make the decision if you need only antibiotics or antibiotics plus antitoxin based on your symptoms, immunization status, and disease progression.

What are possible complications of diphtheria?

The worst possible complication of diphtheria is respiratory failure or death due to pseudomembrane formation that blocks the airway. Other possible complications include cardiac problems such as rhythm disturbances, myocarditis, heart block, secondary pneumonia, septic shock, and infection of other organs such as the spleen, central nervous system, or heart tissue.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/22/2016

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