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Monday, September 28, 2020

Diphtheria: Causes, Symptoms, Complications and Treatment

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Diphtheria is a serious infection caused by bacteria that usually affects the mucous membrane of the throat and the nose. Typically, diphtheria causes sore throat, severe fever, weakness and glands that are swollen.

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A classic sign of diphtheria is a visible sheet of a thick Gray material that covers the back of the throat. This thereby causes a blockage in the airways thereby leading to difficulty in breathing.

Diphtheria is caused by a bacteria known as Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is Alison known as C. Diphtheriae. Usually this bacterium multiplies on the surface of the mucous membranes of the throat or very close to it. This bacteria thereby finds its way to other parts of the body and can be contracted by another person by spreading through the following routes:

1. Airborne droplets

When an infected person should sneeze or cough without covering his/her mouth, other uninfected people will get to inhale the strands of bacteria that is contained in the air droplets that came out through the sneeze or cough.

This is one effective way that C. Diphtheriae spreads from one person to the other most especially in crowded conditions such as a school dormitory, prison cells, and so on.

2. Contaminated personal items

When you as an uninfected handle the clothings, used tissues, sharing drinking glasses with an infected person, or having to come in direct contact with the personal items of the person that seems to be bacteria laden, there is every tendency that the infection will be caught by you and you may end up being very sick too.

3. Contaminated household items

In rare cases where an infected person uses a towel to blow his/her nose or to cover his/her mouth when sneezing and the towel isn’t washed before being used by an uninfected person, the uninfected person might end up catching the same disease.

4. Touching of an infected open wound

There are certain risk factors that must be considered when thinking of Diphtheria. They include:

  1. If they are back-dated when it comes to the issue of their vaccinations.
  2. If they visit a country that is under developed and can’t provide vaccinations for their citizens hence they can be a lot of unintentional carriers in that country
  3. Those who are immuno compromised hence they having a suppressed immune system.
  4. Those who live in crowded, unsanitary and unhygienic places.


Symptoms of diphtheria often occur almost after the initial onset of exposure. Sometimes, some people might not necessarily experience symptoms while others experience symptoms of the cold or flu.

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However, one distinguishing factor which is perhaps the most important symptom in the presence of a covering made from a very thick membrane that with a gray coloration without blemish which is usually found on the tongues or tonsils. Other symptoms include:

  1. Fever
  2. Chills
  3. Inflammation in the glands of the neck
  4. A loud cough that sounds like a dog barking
  5. Drooling
  6. Bluish skin due to insufficient oxygen.
  7. General uneasiness and discomfort.
  8. Nasal discharges

If symptoms are left untreated, it will further lead to difficulty in swallowing and breathing, changes in sight and vision, slurred speeches, and shock.  When diphtheria is not treated, it results in cutaneous diphtheria otherwise known skin diphtheria.

Cutaneous diphtheria is a kind of diphtheria that affects the skin. It causes severe pain, redness and intense inflammation. It can either cause all these symptoms on its own but most times, it does this in combination with other bacterial diseases.

A typical feature of cutaneous diphtheria is also usually a thick grey membrane just like the normal diphtheria.

Cutaneous diphtheria is usually common in areas found in the tropical zone but sometimes it has been seen to affect Americans. There are some complications that diphtheria can bring of left untreated and they include:

1. Severe breathing problems

The bacteria that causes diphtheria releases a toxin and this toxin causes a severe damage to the tissues found within the surrounding areas which usually are the throat and the nose.

At this area, the infection produces a membrane that is Gray in colour.  This membrane is composed of dead cells, bacteria and other harmful components. This membrane will cause the shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing.

2. Damage to the heart

The toxin released from this bacteria can decide to spread throughout the body bumpy traveling in the bloodstream. Once this occurs, the tissues in the body can get damaged.

Tissues such as the muscular tissues, heart tissues, and the heart muscle can be affected and once this occurs it can cause severe heart problems such as inflammation or swelling of the heart muscle otherwise known as myocarditis.

Myocarditis may only cause only a slight damage to the tissues of the heart, and it can lead up to other severe complications. This heart issues might come up as a slight abnormality on the electrocardiogram. It can also cause other severe problems such as heart failure which will come up to be a major abnormality on the electrocardiogram.

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3. Severe Nerve Damages

As the toxin travels in the bloodstream, it can decide to lodge in the nerves hereby causing severe nerve damages. It typically targets the nerves of the throat and hence this will cause poor nerve conduction which will in turn cause severe difficulties in swallowing.

Another set of nerves that it targets are the nerves present in the upper extremities (the hands) and the lower extremities (the legs). This would therefore cause muscle weakness and if not properly treated, it causes the muscles to waste away.

The toxins can as well decide to destroy the nerves that causes the control of muscles that aids in breathing. Once this occur, there will muscle paralysis and hence respiration can become very difficult or sometimes impossible. Once this occurs, the patient might need a respirator or any other device to aid in breathing.


Once you are experiencing these symptoms, endeavour to visit your doctor for aggressive and radical treatments. Your doctor may begin treatments by doing the following:

1. He will first administer an anti-toxin

The very first injection your doctor must administer to you is an anti-toxin. Once it is injected into the body through the vein or through the muscle, it’s work is to combat and neutralize the already circulating toxin in your bloodstream.

However, before this toxin is given, the doctor must perform an allergy test to check if the person is not allergic to the antitoxin. People who are allergic will first be given an injection of desensitization to the antitoxin before administering the injection.

2. The patient will then be given high doses of antibiotics

Penicillin and erythromycin are very good examples of antibiotics that can be administered by the doctor. This will help in killing the bacteria in the body and as well help clear up the infections already present alongside diphtheria.

However, for these treatments to be administered, the patients must first be admitted into the hospital and isolated in the intensive care unit. This is to help prevent the spread of the disease to anyone who has not been vaccinated against it.

If the case had gotten worse and the patient had started to experience difficulty in breathing, doctors may decide to carry out an invasive surgery to remove the mucous membrane that is causing an obstruction in breathing.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative & educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

Deborah Akinola
Wirter, poet and public speaker
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