Diphtheria is a diseases caused by a bacterial infection of the respiratory system. It’s commonly localized in the mucous membrane of a patients nose and throat and less common on its skin. Thus we can differentiate two types of diphtheria the respiratory one and the cutaneous one. The diphtheria bacterium is the cause for these acute respiratory problems. The bacteria establishes itself on the lining of the throat of the infected patients, where it multiplies and releases a toxin. This poisonous substance destroys the mucous membrane of the throat and nose. In time the dead membrane builds a layer of thick, grey material that covers the patients airways. Breathing becomes troublesome and swallowing gets difficult.
Thanks to vaccines like Tdap diphtheria is efficiently prevented by immunization, since early childhood. This illness is not a major problem anymore in developed countries. Vaccination is available since the 1920s and no epidemics where recorded since 1940, excepting a large outbreak in the early 1990s in Russia.
However, you need to know that diphtheria immunization has to be renewed every 10 years. In case of adults, this is usually only necessarily if you travel in developing countries that present a higher infection risk.
Causes and Contagion
The Corynebacterium diphtheriae spreads through droplets via air. For example when an infected person sneezes a mist which consists in a combination of air and saliva droplets is scattered through the air. Nearby individuals which inhale them, become easily infected.
One can also get diphtheria if he touches contaminated objects of an infected person, like computer keyboard, towels, used napkins. You can also get diphtheria from sharing the same glass with an infected host.
It’s important to underline that the Diphtheria bacteria is only present in humans. More, some of us can have the infection without manifesting any symptoms, but become carriers. This condition can be spread out by silent carriers for as long as 6 weeks from the day of infection (if they aren’t treated with antibiotics).
This condition manifests itself after 2 – 5 days from the moment of infection. At the beginning the sufferer experiences a sore throat, nasal discharge and a mild fever. Next, the thick grey layer of dead membrane forms in the patients throat causing difficulties with breathing and swallowing. Swollen glans and a general state of illness sets in. After the 2nd week of suffering arrhythmia can occur as well as partial paralysis because the heart and nervous systems are affected by the infection.
Diphtheria is fatal in around 5% of cases in the Western countries, while it can reach up to 40% in the underdeveloped ones. This difference is caused by the delayed diagnose.
Diagnose and Treatment
Diphtheria is diagnosed by laboratory analysis of a sample from the grey layer formed in the patients throat. However, treatment for diphtheria often starts before the confirmation of the diagnose, because tackling the bacteria as early as possible is the key for rapid healing. The patient is first isolated to prevent spreading the germs to other patients. Next, a diphtheria antitoxin is administrated to slow down and neutralize the effects of the toxin. Antibiotics, like penicillin, are also used to help the body to fight the bacteria and thus prevent it from releasing additional toxins. Both sufferers and silent carriers aren’t contagious anymore after 2 days of antibiotic treatment.
In severe cases artificial ventilation could be also applied as a supportive measure, in order to help the patient to breathe properly.