Diphtheria: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Maybe you have heard of the disease diphtheria. So what is this diphtheria? What causes it? What are the symptoms? How do doctors diagnose it? Does any treatment exist? What are the methods to avoid this disease? In this article I have tried to cover the main points related to the above stated topics. However this article is written to provide just a basic idea, and it should not be used for treatment in emergencies. Please contact your physician before starting any medication.

Please read on to find out more about the disease.

Some useful statistics

Here are some useful statistics about the disease :-

  • The disease kills patients mostly lesser than 6 and greater than 40 years of age
  • On an average 5 to 10% of the patients die each year
  • Experts have recorded very few cases every year in India, but they are a lot more in comparison to the number recorded in west.
  • However cases have decreased significantly with passing time, thanks to better medication and standards of living
  • It occurs mostly in Africa and south east Asia
  • The disease was first diagnosed in 5 BC by Hippocrates.

What is diphtheria?

It is a highly contagious and life threatening disease affecting the respiratory system.

Some of the important points associated with the disease are :-

  • It is serious and can be fatal
  • It affects mucous membrane in throat and nose
  • The disease can spread from one person to another
  • Vaccines help in stopping it from spreading
  • Produced toxins get distributed throughout the body with the blood stream

What causes it?

The main bacteria responsible for the disease is Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Other species can also cause the disease, but the symptoms are not so severe in their cases. The primary ways in which the disease can enter your body are:-

  • It can spread through usage of personal effects of infected people like cups, tissues, or clothes.
  • Also spread through sneezing, blowing nose and coughing in public places
  • Through infectious formation on skin

People can get the disease if :-

  • They do not take their vaccines properly
  • If they have visited a country which does not provide proper immunity against the disease
  • Have a weak immune system which is unable to fight off the germs
  • live in unhygenic conditions with improper sanitation

What are the symptoms?

Appearance of symptoms depends on the body of the victim. The symptoms may be severe, or they may be mild or negligible. Symptoms depend on the species of bacteria which causes it. They  start showing within the first week of the infection. Some of the prominent symptoms are:-

  • formation of a thick coating on tonsils and inner lining of throat, nose, tongue, or breathing channel. It is usually made up of previously healthy cells which were destroyed by the infection.
  • fevers and suddenly feeling cold
  • Reduced formation of proteins by the cells
  • Formation of bull neck, which results in swollen throat and neck
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • Loud hollow cough from the chest
  • sore throat
  • general weakness of the body
  • discoloration of skin because of improper blood supply
  • overflow of saliva from the mouth
  • a general feeling of fatigue and tiredness
  • Bad smelling discolored nasal discharge
  • Increased heart beat frequency
  • Ulcers on skin in case of skin diptheria
  • difficulty in performing tasks with throat like breathing or swallowing
  • visual disturbances

What kind of complications can arise?

As said before, diphtheria can cause many serious problems. In some cases it even proves to be fatal. Some of the complications that can arise are :-

  • permanent damage to heart brain or kidney
  • Severe infection affects nervous system
  • Blood poisoning can happen
  • paralysis to a part or whole of the body
  • Death due to various reasons like breathing problems

How do doctors diagnose it?

Diagnosis is difficult in normal cases because symptoms may be negligible or non existent. They may also co exist with other more prominent diseases. Some of the ways in which the disease is diagnosed are :-

  • From medical history of the patient
  • By observing if lymph nodes have swollen or not
  • Presence of a low grade fever for a long time or unexplained swelling in the neck region
  • If a grayish layer has appeared on the throat or tonsils
  • Analysing throat or affected area tissues in laboratory

What are the treatments?

Diptheria can cause very serious problems, and so usually the doctors deal with it full force and they spare no expense. It is best to start treatment even if the disease is not confirmed. Some of the treatments are :-

  • Taking an anti toxin dose to counter the effects of the bacteria. Please make sure you are not allergic to the anti toxin
  • Antibiotics to help clear up the infection. However it is not much advised as it can have various side effects on the patient
  • Avoiding close contact with the public to stop the disease from spreading during treatment. This period is usually for about 2 days.

How to avoid the disease?

The best way to avoid the disease is by taking the correct vaccines  and antibiotics in proper time. The vaccine for diphtheria is DTaP. It is given in a series of 5 shots. For children, each of these shots are at a different age. They are :-

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 1 and half years
  • 5 years

In some cases children might have an allergic reaction to the vaccine. However they can be ignored safely because they usually disappear within a few days. Vaccines last for 10 years and needs to be re-administrated after that.

If you are already infected, try to avoid public places to prevent the germs from spreading. Also cover your face while sneezing or coughing and keep your personal effects seperate from others.


Thus we see that though the disease may not seem so complex, diptheria can cause very serious complications. Complete medication must be started as soon as symptoms start to show. However, prevention is better than cure. So it is best to take your vaccinations regularly and take some precautions to prevent the germs from entering your body.

I hope this article has spread some light on the matter.  Please do not forget to comment in the comment section.

Soham Choudhury

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