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What Causes Diphtheria?

By H. Lo
Updated May 17, 2024
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Diphtheria is caused by a bacterial infection. The medical condition, which is an acute infectious disease, spreads through airborne droplets, like when an infected person coughs or sneezes. In some cases, it also spreads through contaminated foods or objects, or through direct contact with an infected wound. Risk factors of this disease include lack of adequate immunization, living in crowded or unsanitary conditions, and poor hygiene.

The bacterium, Corynebacterium diphtheriae (C. diphtheriae), infects the nose and throat, and in some instances, other areas of the body, such as the skin. C. diphtheriae can be dangerous because it produces a toxin that spreads through the bloodstream and damages organs. This toxin can cause great trouble for the brain, heart and nerves.

In the past, diphtheria was a leading cause of death in children, but because of routine and worldwide vaccination, the illness is now rare in developed countries. If it does show up, it is often seen in adolescents or adults. This is because a childhood immunization only lasts for so long, and a person should get a booster shot approximately every 10 years. Booster shots help a person maintain immunity, which is important especially if he travels to countries where the disease is still a threat.

Diagnosis of diphtheria includes a physical examination that might help determine the presence of the bacteria. The distinguishing factor between diphtheria and similar illnesses is that with the former, a thick gray-to-black covering forms in the nose or throat. This characteristic covering is enough to suspect a case of diphtheria. A test of a sample of the membrane in the throat or tissue of infected skin can confirm the disease.

In addition to the thick covering in the throat, signs of diphtheria include breathing and swallowing difficulties, a hoarse and sore throat, and swollen glands in the neck. Other symptoms include chills, fever and nasal discharge. Some infected people do not exhibit any symptoms but are carriers of the disease, which means they are just as able to spread the illness to other people as those who do show symptoms.

If left untreated, diphtheria can lead to death. About 10 percent of people who contract the disease do not survive it, so if a doctor suspects that a person has the illness, he will start treatment immediately. Treatment consists of antibiotics and an antitoxin. Antibiotics will rid the body of the bacteria and clear up the infection, while an antitoxin will neutralize the toxin produced by the bacteria. To keep diphtheria from spreading, a doctor will treat carriers of the disease as well, although only with antibiotics.

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