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What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection, which mainly affects the nose, throat and occasionally the skin, but in more serious cases, it can attack the heart and nerves.

Diphtheria is now very rare in the U.K. and almost all new reported cases are acquired from holidays abroad.

What causes diphtheria?

Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium known as C. diphtheiae.

The bacteria produce a toxin (poison) that is carried in the bloodstream and causes tissue damage in the area of infection, usually the nose and throat. However, if left untreated the toxin may spread to other organs like the heart, kidneys or nervous system where it can cause severe damage.

Diphtheria is spread in fine droplets of moisture, which contain the virus. The droplets are produced when the infected person coughs or sneezes, another person then inhales these droplets and may become infected. You may also contact diphtheria from clothes, toys or sharing drinking glasses with an infected person.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Diphtheria can affect people in many different ways, the symptoms of diphtheria can include any of the following:

  • Runny nose
  • Swelling of the larynx
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling of the skin or eyes (these symptoms are quite rare)
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Skin lesions
  • Double vision
  • Swollen neck glands
  • Difficulty in breathing

What are the effects of diphtheria?

If treated early, people with diphtheria will usually make a complete recovery with no side effects, though the speed of recovery will depend on the severity of the infection. If diphtheria is left untreated a more serious infection may develop causing severe heart complications, that can lead to coma, paralysis or even death.

What treatment is available for diphtheria?

If you are diagnosed with diphtheria you will usually need to be admitted to a hospital so that your heart and breathing can be monitored.

You will usually be given antibiotics to destroy the bacterium and you may also be given an immunization to prevent any reoccurrences of diphtheria.

How can I prevent catching diphtheria?

The major way of preventing diphtheria is immunization. The diphtheria vaccine will usually be given to babies along with tetanus and whooping cough (known as D.P.T.) in the first few months of life. A booster injection is usually given before the child starts school and again when they leave school between the ages of 16-18 years.