In the Know: What is diphtheria? | Inquirer News

In the Know: What is diphtheria?

/ 05:40 AM September 26, 2019

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which primarily infects the throat and upper airways.

The illness has an acute onset and the main characteristics are sore throat, low fever and swollen glands in the neck.


The diphtheria toxin causes a membrane of dead tissue to build up over the throat and tonsils, making breathing and swallowing difficult.

The poison may also get into the bloodstream and cause damage to the heart, nerves and kidneys.


Complications from diphtheria may include blocked airway, damage to the heart muscle (myocarditis), nerve damage (polyneuropathy), loss of the ability to move (paralysis) and lung infection (respiratory failure or pneumonia).

Diphtheria can lead to death.

Even with treatment, about one in 10 diphtheria patients die.

Without treatment, up to half of patients can die from the disease.

Diphtheria is communicable, usually spread through respiratory droplets like from coughing or sneezing.

Rarely, people can get sick by touching open sores (skin lesions) or clothes that touched open sores of diphtheria patients.

Infection is possible through contact with an object, like a toy, that is contaminated with the diphtheria agent.


Vaccination has reduced the mortality and morbidity of diphtheria dramatically.

But diphtheria remains a significant child health problem in countries with poor vaccine coverage.

In countries where diphtheria is endemic, the disease occurs mostly in sporadic cases or in small outbreaks.

Diphtheria is fatal in five to 10 percent of cases, with a higher mortality rate in young children.

Treatment involves administering diphtheria antitoxin to neutralize the effects of the toxin, as well as antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

For prevention, immunization of infants with three doses of DPT vaccine (against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) at ages 6 weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks is recommended. —Inquirer Research


Sources: Department of Health, World Health Organization, Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention

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