Diphtheria Symptoms & Causes

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What is diphtheria?

A common childhood disease in the 1930s, diphtheria is an acute bacterial disease that can infect the throat (respiratory diphtheria) or the skin (skin or cutaneous diphtheria). It is rare today, thanks to the diphtheria vaccine.

Types of diphtheria

  • Respiratory diphtheria
    • when diphtheria bacterium multiplies in the throat
    • a membrane may form over the throat and tonsils, causing a sore throat among other symptoms
    • asphyxiation may occur
    • may also release toxins into the blood, causing heart failure
  • Cutaneous diphtheria
    • a skin infection, also called skin diphtheria
    • symptoms are usually milder and may include yellow spots or sores on the skin

What causes diphtheria?

The diphtheria bacterium can enter the body through the nose and mouth. However, it can also enter through a break in the skin. It's transmitted from person-to-person by coughing or sneezing. After being exposed to the bacteria, it usually takes two to four days for symptoms to develop.

Is diphtheria common?

No, thanks to the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine (DTaP), diphtheria is very rare today in the United States and other developed nations.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

While symptoms vary from child to child, the most common include:

  • For respiratory diphtheria
    • sore throat
    • breathing difficulty
    • husky voice
    • stridor (a shrill breathing sound heard during inspiration, or breathing in)
    • enlarged lymph glands of the neck
    • increased heart rate
    • nasal drainage
    • swelling of the palate (the roof of the mouth)
  • For cutaneous diphtheria
    • yellow spots or sores on the skin

Can you prevent diphtheria?

The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine routinely given during your child's first year prevents diphtheria. Because diphtheria still exists in underdeveloped countries, the vaccine remains necessary.

There are several types of the vaccine:

  • DTaP vaccine
    • protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis
    • a newer form of the vaccine and is less likely to cause reactions than earlier types given.
    • given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, 4 to 6 years, and 11 to 12 years (and a booster every 10 years thereafter)
  • Tdap vaccine
    • protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis
    • recommended for adolescents ages 11 to 18 years who have completed the recommended DTP/DTaP series

Some children should not get the DTaP vaccines, or should get them later. These include children who:

  • previously had a moderate or serious reaction after getting vaccinated
  • previously had a seizure
  • have a parent or sibling who has had a seizure
  • have a brain problem that is becoming worse
  • currently have a moderate or severe illness
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