What is Diphtheria? – Diphtheria is a disease that spreads easily. It is caused by the Corynebacterium species of bacteria and is most often associated with a sore throat, fever and the development of an adherent membrane on the tonsils and/or nasopharynx. More severe infections can affect the heart and the nervous system.
Who is at Risk? – Children who are under the age of 5 and adults over the age of 60 are at risk for contracting this infection. People who live in unclean conditions, are under nourished and those whose immunizations are not up-to-date are also particularly at risk.
What are the Symptoms? Initially, diphtheria can be mistaken for a viral upper respiratory infection. But these symptoms worsen over the next two to five days. The symptoms include a sore throat, fever, weakness, headache, cough, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, enlarged lymph nodes and difficulty in breathing. In cases where it has progressed beyond throat infection, diphtheria toxin spreads through the bloodstream. This can lead to life-threatening complications that affect other organs like heart and kidneys. The toxin can also cause damage to the nerve that will eventually lead to paralysis.
Is it Contagious? It is highly contagious. Bacteria are easily passed from an infected person to others through sneezing or coughing.
How can it be Prevented? The most effective way to prevent diphtheria is to vaccinate people (infants) early in their lives. Also, preventing the individuals affected from being in contact with other uninfected people can contain diphtheria. Antibiotics are also given to individuals who are carriers of the bacteria to reduce the chance of them transmitting the bacteria to others.
How is it Treated? When a person has been diagnosed with diphtheria, the infected person will receive an anti-toxin injection (or IV). The anti-toxin will neutralize the diphtheria toxin in the body. Antibiotics are also given to kill the remaining diphtheria bacteria. A person diagnosed with diphtheria will be isolated and their family members who may have been exposed to the bacteria will be treated. Treatment includes throat cultures, booster doses of diphtheria vaccine, and antibiotics as a precaution.
When to See the Doctor? If you, family members or anyone you know has symptoms of diphtheria (or if anyone has been exposed to diphtheria), go and see the doctor immediately. If your child has not been vaccinated against diphtheria, make an appointment. If diphtheria is left untreated, the person infected can die.