Health Information

Diphtheria

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an acute bacterial disease that can infect the body in the throat (respiratory diphtheria), nose, tonsils, and/or skin (skin or cutaneous diphtheria). A common childhood disease in the 1930s, a vaccine against diphtheria has made it very rare in the US and other developing countries today.

How is diphtheria transmitted?

The diphtheria bacterium can enter the body through the nose and mouth. However, it can also enter through a break in the skin. It is transmitted from person to person by respiratory secretions or by breathing in droplets that contain diphtheria bacteria from an infected person coughing, sneezing, or laughing. After being exposed to the bacterium, it usually takes 2 to 4 days for symptoms to develop.

Treatment of diphtheria:

Specific treatment for diphtheria will be determined by your physician based on:
  • your overall health and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Penicillin is usually effective in treating respiratory diphtheria before it releases toxins in the blood. An antitoxin can be given in combination with the penicillin, if diphtheria is suspected. Sometimes a tracheostomy (a breathing tube surgically inserted in the windpipe) is necessary if the patient has severe breathing difficulties.