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DefinitionDiphtheria is an acute infectious disease caused by the toxin-producing bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae .
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Diphtheria is usually transmitted by contact with respiratory droplets from infected persons or asymptomatic carriers. It can also be transmitted by contaminated objects or foods (such as contaminated milk). The incubation period is 2 to 5 days.
It can also spread via the bloodstream to other organs, where it can cause significant damage. Although the toxin can damage any tissue, the heart and nervous system are most frequently and most severely affected.
Localized infection in the throat and tonsillar area produces a characteristic membrane that is gray to black, tough, and fibrous. This membrane can cause airway obstruction .
In 1993 and 1994, the states of the former USSR experienced a diphtheria epidemic, with more than 150,000 reported cases and 5,000 deaths. The epidemic was related to a drop in routine childhood DPT immunization to less than 60% of the population, failure to give booster doses to adults, and worsening economic conditions in the affected countries.
Signs and tests
Physical examination may reveal the characteristic gray membrane (pseudomembrane) in the throat, enlarged lymph glands , and swelling of the neck or larynx. If diphtheria is suspected, treatment should be started immediately, even before the results of bacterial tests are available.
Diphtheria antitoxin is given as an intramuscular or intravenous injection as soon as the diagnosis is suspected. The infection is then treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin or erythromycin.
Immunization or booster shots for all contacts of the infected person, including health care personnel, should be given. Individuals found to be carriers of diphtheria are treated with antibiotics as well.
Protective immunity is not present longer than 10 years after the last vaccination, so it is important for adults to get a booster of tetanus-diptheria (Td) vaccine every 10 years.
Expectations (prognosis)The death rate is 10%. Recovery from the illness is slow; therefore, activities must be resumed slowly.
ComplicationsThe diphtheria toxin can damage the heart, nervous system, kidneys, or other organs resulting in disorders such as:
Calling your health care providerCall for an appointment with your health care provider if exposure to diphtheria has occurred. Remember that diphtheria is a rare disease. Diphtheria is also a reportable disease , and any cases are often publicized in the newspaper or on television. This information can make you aware if diphtheria is present in your area.
PreventionRoutine childhood immunizations and adult boosters prevent the disease. See diphtheria immunization (vaccine) .
Update Date: 8/7/2002Camille Kotton, M.D., Infectious Diseases Division, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT