Diphtheria - including symptoms, treatment and prevention
Diphtheria is an infection of the throat and nose caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
Diphtheria has been rare in Australia since the introduction of an effective vaccine, but a century ago, was the most common infectious cause of death. Outbreaks still occur in countries where vaccination rates are not high.
Diphtheria is a notifiable condition1
How diphtheria is spread
People can carry the diphtheria bacterium harmlessly in the nose and throat (‘carriers’). The diphtheria bacterium is spread when an infected person (patient or carrier) talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. The droplets in the air may be breathed in by those nearby. The diphtheria bacterium is also spread by indirect contact with hands, tissues or other articles soiled by nose and throat discharges, or by indirect contact with skin sores.
Signs and symptoms of diphtheria
swollen neck glands
discharge from the nose.
The bacteria can also produce a toxin capable of damaging nerves or the heart.
Occasionally these bacteria can cause skin infections, usually in people with poor health or poor hygiene.
Diagnosis of diphtheria
Diphtheria is suspected when a white or grey membrane is seen on the back of the throat and is confirmed when the bacteria are seen under the microscope and grown in the laboratory.
(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)
Usually 2 to 5 days.
(time during which an infected person can infect others)
Without antibiotic therapy, usually less than 2 weeks but occasionally as long as 6 months. A person is no longer infectious after treatment with appropriate antibiotics.
Treatment of diphtheria
Specific treatment with antibiotics and an antidote to the toxin is available.
Contacts of people with diphtheria need to be investigated for the disease, receive antibiotics and receive vaccination if required. A contact is any person who has been close enough to an infected person to be at risk of having acquired the infection from that person.
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