Diphtheria is a suddenly occurring, contagious and
infectious disease due to the bacteria (shown at right),
Corynebacterium diphtheriae, and its very strong toxin.
WHAT ARE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF
Signs of diphtheria include severe inflammation that can
cause the formation of a membrane-like coating that
forms a thick, elastic, protein-filled exudate.
Exudate refers to fluids, cells, or other substances that have been slowly discharged from
damaged blood vessels into a tissue or onto a tissue surface. The inflammation can
occur in the mucous membranes of the throat, trachea (windpipe), bronchi (small airways
connecting from the trachea to the lungs), and other tissues. A mucous membrane is one
of four major types of thin sheets of tissue that line or cover various parts of the body.
The thick elastic membrane can interfere with eating, drinking, and breathing.
The toxin released in diphtheria damages peripheral nerves, heart muscle, the brain,
spinal cord, and other tissues throughout the body. Peripheral nerves are nerves in other
parts of the body besides the brain and spine. Lymph glands in the neck may swell and
the neck can appear swollen. Lymph is a milky fluid that contains proteins, fats, and white
"Where Medical Information is Easy to Understand"™
HOW IS DIPHTHERIA TREATED?
Due to how contagious diphtheria is, patients are often treated in
isolation rooms, in which they are separated from other patients.
Treatment involves administering antibacterial medication, anti-toxin
medication, fluids, bed rest, and adequate diet.
Breathing can be so impaired that a tracheostomy may be needed.
A tracheostomy is a hole that is cut into the trachea (windpipe) so
that a breathing tube can be inserted.
WHAT IS THE PROGNOSIS WHEN ONE HAS DIPHTHERIA?
Diphtheria was associated with a high death rate (especially in children), but is now rare because of an
effective vaccine, which is available to all children in the U.S. The vaccine is typically administered in
combination with pertussis and tetanus immunization in early infancy. Pertusssis is a serious bacterial
infection of the lining of the breathing passages, especially the windpipe. Tetanus is a potentially deadly
infection of the brain and spinal cord produced by poison (tetanospasmin) produced by the bacteria,
Clostridium tetani. If diphtheria goes untreated, however, it is fatal due to breathing obstruction, heart
problems, and/or kidney problems. If treated, recovery is usually slow but complete.
WHY IS IT CALLED DIPHTHERIA?
Diphtheria comes from the Greek word "diphthera" meaning "leather."