About Diphtheria

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of the throat and nose. Although it spreads easily from one person to another, diphtheria can be prevented through the use of vaccines.

Call your doctor right away if you believe you have diphtheria. If it’s left untreated, it can cause severe damage to your kidneys, nervous system, and heart. It’s fatal in about 3 percent of cases, according to the Mayo Clinic.

What causes diphtheria?

A type of bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae causes diphtheria. The condition is typically spread through person-to-person contact or through contact with objects that have the bacteria on them, such as a cup or used tissue. You may also get diphtheria if you’re around an infected person when they sneeze, cough, or blow their nose.

Even if an infected person doesn’t show any signs or symptoms of diphtheria, they’re still able to transmit the bacterial infection for up to six weeks after the initial infection.

The bacteria most commonly infect your nose and throat. Once you’re infected, the bacteria release dangerous substances called toxins. The toxins spread through your bloodstream and often cause a thick, gray coating to form in these areas of the body:

  • nose
  • throat
  • tongue
  • airway

In some cases, these toxins can also damage other organs, including the heart, brain, and kidneys. This can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, such as:

  • myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle
  • paralysis
  • kidney failure

What are the risk factors for diphtheria?

Children in the United States and Europe are routinely vaccinated against diphtheria, so the condition is rare in these places. However, diphtheria is still fairly common in developing countries where immunization rates are low. In these countries, children under age 5 and people over age 60 are particularly at risk of getting diphtheria.

People are also at an increased risk of contracting diphtheria if they:

  • aren’t up to date on their vaccinations
  • visit a country that doesn’t provide immunizations
  • have an immune system disorder, such as AIDS
  • live in unsanitary or crowded conditions

 

 

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