Diphtheria is a condition caused by a bacterial infection and may become deadly or cause permanent damage to some of the body's organs. It is often a respiratory condition, with diphtheria symptoms that include a distinctive cough, difficulty breathing, and a hoarse, raw feeling that develops in the throat. Symptoms generally begin between two and five days after infection, during which time an individual can spread the bacteria to others.
One of the first of the diphtheria symptoms to manifest is often the development of black fibers in the mouth and throat. This can quickly lead to difficulty breathing, a painful cough, and a raw feeling in the throat. The sore throat can not only lead to a hoarse voice, but repeated coughing can help spread the bacteria. Called Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the bacteria that cause the infection are spread through water droplets expelled during coughing. A mild fever also typically goes along with early symptoms.
Some individuals also develop visible diphtheria symptoms, such as skin lesions or a blue tint to the skin. A sticky gray membrane may form inside the nose and on other mucous membranes such as in the throat. This can make breathing and swallowing even more difficult, and can result in difficulty speaking and a change in voice as well.
As the infection spreads, diphtheria symptoms get progressively worse. Glands in the neck begin to swell, and the individual will often begin to make an involuntary whistling sound when inhaling. This usually signals that the individual's airways are getting progressively narrower and more obstructed. Lymph nodes begin to swell, further obstructing the throat. There may also be a watery discharge from the nose or a buildup of saliva, as it is forced out of the mouth and nose instead of being absorbed into the body.
In some cases where the bacteria are spread in a particularly crowded, unhygienic area, development of open sores or blisters may occur on the skin. Bacteria can be spread through contact with these wounds, which can continue to get worse without treatment. Topical and oral medications and antibiotics are generally needed to treat this type of diphtheria.
If untreated, the bacteria can begin to spread through the rest of the body. Diphtheria symptoms that indicate this process has begun include pale or bluish skin, chills, and a rapid heartbeat. The bacteria can often infect the kidneys and result in permanent damage.