Diphtheria Diphtheria is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae.Causes, incidence, and risk factors Diphtheria spreads through respiratory droplets (such as those produced by a cough or sneeze) of an infected person or someone who carries the bacteria but has no symptoms. Diphtheria can also be spread by contaminated objects or foods (such as contaminated milk). The bacteria most commonly infects the nose and throat. The throat infection causes a gray to black, tough, fiber-like covering, which can block the airways. In some cases, diphtheria may first infect the skin, producing skin lesions. Once infected, dangerous substances called toxins, produced by the bacteria, can spread through your bloodstream to other organs, such as the heart, and cause significant damage. Because of widespread and routine childhood DPT immunizations, diphtheria is now rare in many parts of the world. There are fewer than five cases of diphtheria a year in the United States. Risk factors include crowded environments, poor hygiene, and lack of immunization. Symptoms Symptoms usually occur 2 to 5 days after you have come in contact with the bacteria. • Bluish coloration of the skin • Bloody, watery drainage from nose • Breathing problems ◦ Difficulty breathing ◦ Rapid breathing ◦ Stridor • Chills • Croup-like (barking) cough • Drooling (suggests airway blockage is about to occur) • Fever • Hoarseness • Painful swallowing • Skin lesions (usually seen in tropical areas) • Sore throat (may range from mild to severe) Note: There may be no symptoms.
Diphtheria may be mild or severe. Some people may not have symptoms. In others, the disease can slowly get worse. The death rate is 10%. Recovery from the illness is slow. Complications The most common complication is inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis). The nervous system is also frequently and severely affected, which may result in temporary paralysis. The diphtheria toxin can also damage the kidneys.