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Diphtheria: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About diphtheria

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is a contagious disease which has a potential for fatal consequences. Diphtheria is now a rare occurrence thanks to effective immunisation practices.

Diphtheria: Incidence, age and sex

Diphtheria is a rare disease in present times due to widespread DPT immunisation which is a combined vaccine against diphtheria, pertusis and tetanus. It usually afflicts children less than 5 years of age or older adults. However it may affect an individual at any age.

Signs and symptoms of diphtheria: Diagnosis

The clinical features of diphtheria generally present 2 to 5 days after exposure and begin with high temperature and sore throat. A watery, blood stained discharge from the nose along with a brassy cough may be noted. Affected individuals often complain of breathing problems like breathlessness and noisy, rapid breathing. Other features include drooling of saliva, pain during swallowing, skin lesions and bluish discolouration of the skin.

A detailed physical examination by a specialist may reveal enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and retraction of chest muscles. A microscopic examination of throat swab may show the offending bacteria.

Causes and prevention of diphtheria

Diphtheria is caused by bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae which spreads among humans through respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated objects. Inadequate hygiene and overcrowding causes increased chances of transmission of bacteria among individuals. The bacteria mainly affect the upper respiratory tract like nose and throat and rarely skin. Sometimes a grey to black tough membrane, called ‘pseudomembrane’ is formed in the throat which obstructs the airways and hampers breathing. As the disease progresses, the bacteria may release toxins which may damage the heart and the nerves.

Diphtheria is an air-borne infection which may be prevented from spreading by frequent washing/disinfection of the hands and avoiding close contact with affected individuals. Moreover appropriate and timely vaccination of children along with booster dose during adulthood is essential in preventing diphtheria.

Diphtheria: Complications

Diphtheria may result in serious and life-threatening health concerns, if not managed timely. The formation of pseudomembrane in the respiratory passage may obstruct breathing and result in cyanosis which signifies impaired oxygen supply to the tissues and is evident by bluish discolouration of the skin, lips and nails. The bacterial toxins may also cause inflammation of the heart muscles or the nerves resulting in serious complications like heart failure or paralysis.

Diphtheria: Treatment

Diphtheria is a serious illness which cannot be ignored and requires immediate management. Antibiotic medications like penicillin or erythromycin are usually prescribed. The affected individual needs to be hospitalised in severe cases wherein diphtheria anti-toxin needs to be administered. Other management modalities include maintenance of adequate fluids in body and frequent monitoring of cardiac status. The recovery of diphtheria patients is usually slow and may vary from person to person. However, the disease is curable and most of the individuals show complete recovery in a substantial period of time.