What is Corynebacterium Diphtheriae?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2019
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Corynebacterium diphtheriae is the species of bacteria responsible for diphtheria infections. It is a widespread pathogen that is most likely to infect children and people with weakened immune systems who live in unsanitary and overpopulated regions. Corynebacterium diphtheriae infections are uncommon in developed countries due to the availability of vaccinations for the bacterium. Diphtheria can usually be treated and epidemics prevented with emergency medical care.

The Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacterium usually enters the body through the respiratory tract when a person inhales microscopic strains from an infected person's sneeze or cough. It can also penetrate open skin lesions or enter the body via contaminated food or drink. Bacteria embed themselves in body tissue and release toxins that trigger inflammation. Corynebacterium diphtheriae thrives on the body's iron content, quickly depleting iron levels to replicate and produce more and more toxins.

A person who is infected with Corynebacterium diphtheriae is likely to experience symptoms within about one week of exposure. A sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and coughing tend to develop first. As irritation in the airways and throat worsens, an individual is likely to become very hoarse and experience severe shortness of breath. The skin may acquire a bluish tint due to oxygen deficiency in the blood, and discolored skin lesions are common. Without treatment, inflammation of the heart and nerve cells can lead to cardiac arrest or partial paralysis.


When a doctor suspects that a patient is suffering from diphtheria, he or she can collect a throat culture for laboratory analysis. Upon inspection, Corynebacterium diphtheriae can usually be differentiated from other bacteria based on its physical appearance. A pathologist can also determine the toxicity level of a sample with further investigation.

After making a diagnosis, the patient is usually placed in a sterile, quarantined hospital room. Doctors inform hospital administrators and government disease control centers about the case to warn about the possibility of an epidemic. Treatment typically involves intravenous antitoxins to counter the effect of active Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria. A patient who has severe respiratory complications may need to receive oxygen therapy, a breathing tube, or emergency airway surgery to prevent lung failure.

Following immediate treatment, oral antibiotics such as penicillin are used to fully eradicate Corynebacterium diphtheriae from the body. Full recovery from symptoms can take several months, and patients need to schedule periodic doctor's office visits to monitor their health. Family members, coworkers, or friends who come into contact with an infectious person are encouraged to receive medical checkups and immunization booster shots as well to reduce the risk of an epidemic.


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