Diphtheria Symptoms: Diphtheria is a serious bacterial illness that usually affects the nose and throat. Diphtheria is very rare in the U.S. and other wealthy countries because so many people have been vaccinated against it. But diphtheria is still common in many places that don’t have good health care or many ways to get vaccinated.
Medicines can be used to treat diphtheria. Diphtheria can hurt the heart, kidneys, and nervous system if it gets bad enough. Diphtheria can kill, even if it is treated, especially in children.
Symptoms of diphtheria usually show up 2 to 5 days after a person gets sick. Some signs and symptoms could be:
- A thick, gray membrane that covers the tonsils and back of the throat.
- A sore throat and a raspy voice
- Large lymph nodes (swollen glands) in the neck
- Having trouble breathing or breathing quickly
- Nasal discharge
- Chills and fever
Some people who get infected with the bacteria that cause diphtheria only get a mild sickness or show no symptoms at all. People who have diphtheria but don’t know they have it are called “carriers.” They are called “carriers” because they can pass on the disease even though they are not sick.
Diphtheria of the Skin (Cutaneous)
A second type of diphtheria can cause pain, redness, and swelling on the skin, just like other bacterial skin diseases. Skin diphtheria can also be shown by sores that are covered by a gray covering.
Diphtheria on the face is more common in tropical areas, but it can also happen in the United States. People with bad health who live in crowded places are more likely to get it.
When to Go to the Doctor
If you or your child has been around someone who has diphtheria, call your family doctor right away. Set up a meeting if you aren’t sure if your child has been vaccinated against diphtheria. Make sure your own shots are up to date.
The bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae is what makes people get diphtheria. Most of the time, the bacteria grows near or on the surface of the throat or skin. This is how C. diphtheriae spreads:
Airborne droplets. People close may breathe in C. diphtheriae when an infected person sneezes or coughs and makes a mist of contaminated droplets. This is a common way for diphtheria to spread, especially in busy places.
Personal or household things that are contaminated. People can sometimes get diphtheria from touching a sick person’s things, like used tissues or hand towels that may be contaminated with the bacteria. Touching an infected cut can also spread the bacteria that cause diphtheria.
People who have been infected with the diphtheria bacteria but haven’t been treated can spread the disease to people who haven’t had the diphtheria vaccine, even if they don’t have any signs.
- Some people are more likely to get diphtheria than others.
- Children and people who haven’t had their shots up to date
- People who live in busy or dirty places
- Anyone who goes to a place where diphtheria is more common should get a shot.
- Diphtheria is rare in the United States and Western Europe because kids have been getting protected against it for decades. Diphtheria is still common, though, especially in poor countries with low vaccination rates.
In places where diphtheria vaccination is common, the disease mostly affects people who haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated well enough and who travel abroad or come into contact with people from less developed countries.
If you don’t treat diphtheria, it can cause:
Problems with breathing. The bugs that cause diphtheria may make a poison. This toxin hurts the tissue right near the infection, which is generally in the nose and throat. At that spot, the illness makes a tough, gray membrane made of dead cells, bacteria, and other things. This layer can make it difficult to breathe.
Heart damage. The diphtheria toxin could get into the system and hurt other parts of the body. For example, it can hurt the heart muscle, which can lead to problems like myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle. Myocarditis can do small or big damage to the heart. At its worst, myocarditis can cause the heart to stop working and the person to die suddenly.
Nerve loss. This poison can also hurt nerves. Nerves that go to the throat are often the target, since bad nerve conduction can make it hard to swallow. The nerves that go to the arms and legs can also get swollen, which makes the muscles weak.
If the diphtheria toxin hurts the nerves that help control breathing muscles, these muscles could stop working. You might need a machine to help you breathe at that point.
Most people with diphtheria survive these complications if they get care, but recovery is usually slow. Diphtheria kills about 5% to 10% of the people who get it. Death rates are higher for children under 5 and people over 40.
Diphtheria was a common illness in young children before medicines were invented. Today, you can not only treat the sickness, but you can also get a vaccine to keep from getting it.
Most of the time, the diphtheria shot is given along with shots for tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough vaccine is a three-in-one shot. This vaccine’s most recent form is called the DTaP vaccine for kids and the Tdap vaccine for teens and adults.
The diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (DTaP) vaccine is one of the shots that doctors in the U.S. suggest for babies. Vaccination is a set of five shots that are usually given in the arm or thigh. These shots are given to children at the following ages:
between 4 and 6
The diphtheria vaccine works to keep people from getting the disease. But there might be some problems. Some kids may get a low fever, be fussy, feel sleepy, or have pain at the injection site after getting a DTaP shot. Ask your child’s doctor what you can do to lessen or stop these affects.
Rarely do things go wrong. In very rare cases, the DTaP vaccine can cause a child to have a major but treatable problem, like an allergic reaction (hives or a rash appear within minutes of the shot).
Some kids may not be able to get the DTaP vaccine, like those who have epilepsy or another disease that affects the nervous system.
After the first round of vaccinations you got as a child, you need diphtheria booster shots to keep your protection up. This is because diphtheria protection fades over time.
Children who got all of the recommended shots before they turned 7 should get their first booster shot when they are 11 or 12. After 10 years, you should get another booster shot, and then every 10 years after that. If you are going to a place where diphtheria is popular, you should get a booster shot.
The booster is given as a Tdap vaccine or as the tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine, which combines the diphtheria booster with the tetanus booster. This combination vaccine is usually given as a shot in the arm or thigh.
Tdap is an alternative vaccine for 11–18-year-olds and people who haven’t had a Tdap booster shot before. It’s also recommended once during pregnancy, no matter how many times you’ve had the shot before.
If you don’t know how vaccinated you are, talk to your doctor about vaccines and extra shots. As part of the Td series, a Tdap vaccine may also be suggested for children ages 7 to 10 who aren’t up to date on their vaccines.