Diphtheria: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Diphtheria is a serious infection caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheria. It affects the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. A characteristic sign of diphtheria is a sheet of thick, gray material, covering the back of the throat, which can block the airway, causing struggle while breathing.

Symptoms vary from person to person and usually start two to five days after exposure. Symptoms begin with a sore throat, fever, and a swollen neck (in parts) due to enlarged lymph nodes. Diphtheria is spread between people by direct contact or through the air, and may also be spread by contaminated objects. Symptoms produced are due to a toxin produced by the bacteria. There are 3 different types of bacteria which cause different severities of disease.

Diagnosis can be made based on the appearance of the throat with confirmation by microbiological culture. For prevention of the disease, diphtheria vaccine is effective. In severe cases, tracheotomy is needed to open the airway. In 2015, 4,500 cases were reported globally, down from nearly 100,000 in 1980. Diphtheria occurs most often in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia.

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How Does Diphtheria Affect Your Body?

Diphtheria can affect the ability to breathe as air passages are clogged up by a dense, gray coating, which separates itself from the back of the throat. In addition, the bacteria generate a toxin that can damage the nerves associated with the facial muscles, throat, arms, and legs. Nerve damage includes trouble swallowing or restricted motion of the eyes, arms, or legs. The toxin released also harms the kidneys and brings about swelling of the heart muscle, which causes abnormal heartbeats, heart problems, and even death. In rare cases, the eye can also be affected.

What Are The Causes of Diphtheria?

The causative agent is Corynebacterium diphtheria which causes diphtheria. This bacteria usually multiplies on or near the surface of the mucous membranes of the throat. This bacteria can be spread via:

  • Airborne droplets – When an infected person sneezes or coughs, contaminated droplets are released and people nearby may inhale diphtheria.
  • Contaminated items – People occasionally catch diphtheria from handling an infected person’s used household or personal belongings.
  • Infected wounds – Diphtheria may also be caused by coming in contact with infected wounds.

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What Are The Risk Factors of Diphtheria?

Risk factors of diphtheria are as follows:

  • Children and adults who are not immunized or are not up to date with their immunizations
  • Traveling to places where diphtheria is endemic

What Are The Symptoms of Diphtheria?

Symptoms of diphtheria begin two to seven days after infection:

  • Fever of 38°C or above
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Bluish skin coloration (cyanosis)
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Foul-smelling and bloodstained nasal discharge
  • Lymphadenopathy

Within two to three days of infection, diphtheria may destroy healthy tissues in the respiratory system causing dead tissues to form a thick, gray coating that can build up in the throat or the nose. This can cover tissues in the nose, tonsils, voice box, and throat, making it very hard to breathe and swallow.

How is Diphtheria Diagnosed?

  • Diphtheria is normally diagnosed by looking at a sore throat with a gray membrane covering the tonsils and throat.
  • Isolation of diphtherie from a throat culture, from a sample taken from the throat, can help diagnose diphtheria.
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How To Prevent and Control Diphtheria?

  • Vaccination – Diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with tetanus and pertussis’s vaccine, commonly known as DTP. Vaccination can help to prevent this disease.
  • Booster shots – To help maintain against diphtheria, booster shots are given later in life after the vaccination.

Treatment of Diphtheria – Allopathic Treatment

In severe cases, lymph nodes in the neck may swell, and breathing and swallowing become more difficult; in this case intubation or a tracheotomy may be required. Patients with severe cases are admitted to the hospital and are given antitoxin, which is injected into a vein or muscle. It further neutralizes the diphtheria toxin already circulating in the body.

Antibiotics are used in carriers or patients to eradicate C. diphtheriae and prevent its transmission to others. Following medications are given:

  • Metronidazole
  • Erythromycin
  • Procaine penicillin G (patients allergic to penicillin G or erythromycin can use rifampin or clindamycin)
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Treatment of Diphtheria – Homeopathic Treatment

  • Diphtherinum
  • Apis Mel – This is given when there is edema of the throat, with stinging pains.
  • Bromium – This is very effective for diphtheria and is given to a patient experiencing chest pain which can be felt running upwards.
  • Crotalus Horridus – Crotalus horridus is given in malignant diphtheria with the hemorrhagic tendency.
  • Kali bichromicum – Kali bichromicum is prescribed when the pains are confined to small spots in each instance.
  • Lachesis – This is for patients who feel cold and have pain, which is worse after sleep. It is also given when swallowing liquid or saliva is very painful.
  • Mercurius cyanates – This is for patients whose pseudo membranous deposit extends all over the throat.
  • Naja tri – Naja tri is indicated when there is an impending paralysis of the heart and the patient is blue and has awakened from sleep gasping.

Diphtheria – Lifestyle Tips

  • Get proper bedrest for a full recovery
  • Infected people should stay isolated to prevent further spread of the disease
  • Switch to a liquid diet to help ease the throat pain
  • Get the full course of vaccination

What Are The Recommended Exercises For a Person With Diphtheria?

No specific exercise is recommended for diphtheria patients.

Diphtheria & Pregnancy- Things to Know

Diphtheria in adults is rare and the occurrence of diphtheria in pregnant women has not, as yet, been reported.

It is not known how fetal growth and development progress in the presence of diphtheria’s toxin in the maternal circulation. Similarly, the effects on fetal immune responses of an acute maternal diphtheria occurring in early pregnancy are not known.

Common Complications Related to Diphtheria

  • Myocarditis – May result in an abnormal heartbeat
  • Inflammation of nerves – May result in paralysis
  • Kidney problems
  • Bleeding problems due to low platelets level

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