Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially fatal infection that can affect the nose and throat and also sometimes the skin. It is rare but there is a small risk of catching it while travelling in some parts of the world.
C diphtheria is responsible for both endemic and epidemic diseases, and it was first described in the 5th century BC by Hippocrates. Diphtheria manifests as either an upper respiratory tract or cutaneous infection and is caused by the aerobic gram-positive bacteria, Corynebacterium diphtheria.
Signs of diphtheria often appear within two to five days of the infection occurring. Some people do not experience any symptoms, while others have mild symptoms that are similar to those of the common cold.
The most visible and common symptom of diphtheria is a thick, gray coating on the throat and tonsils. Other common symptoms include:
Your doctor can use a swab from the back of the throat and test it for the bacteria that cause diphtheria. A doctor can also take a sample from a skin lesion (like a sore) and try and grow the bacteria to be sure a patient has diphtheria.
Diphtheria treatment today involves:
- Using diphtheria antitoxin to stop the poison (toxin) produced by the bacteria from damaging the body
- Using antibiotics to kill and get rid of the bacteria
Diphtheria patients are usually kept in isolation, until they are no longer contagious — this usually takes about 48 hours after starting antibiotics. After the patient finishes taking the antibiotic, the doctor will run tests to make sure the bacteria is not in the patient`s body anymore.
The main treatments for diphtheria are:
- Antibiotics to kill the bacteria
- Medicines that stop the effects of the harmful substances (toxins) produced by the bacteria
- Thoroughly cleaning any infected wounds if diphtheria is affecting your skin
The best way to prevent diphtheria is to get vaccinated. The vaccine for diphtheria is called DTaP. It is usually given in a single shot along with vaccines for Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and Tetanus. The DTaP vaccine is administered in a series of five shots. It is given to children at the following ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years
If you are travelling where diphtheria is widespread, you may need a booster vaccination if you were last vaccinated against it more than 10 years ago. Diphtheria is found in Asia including the South Pacific and Middle East. Places considered to be high risk can change over time.