What is Diphtheria?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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Diphtheria is a very serious and contagious illness that significantly affects breathing. In some countries, like the US, cases of diphtheria are extremely rare because of vaccination. The diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DTP) vaccination is given soon after birth, with several booster shots administered in early childhood. Usually, children receive a last DTP booster shot at the age of 12 or 13. Adults may receive a booster if needed, as a booster vaccination is recommended for those traveling to areas where diphtheria is still common.

Initial symptoms of diphtheria present about three to five days after exposure to someone else with the germ. Transmission generally occurs by inhaling the droplets of an infected person's fluids. One’s presence around a person with diphtheria who is sneezing or coughing is usually enough to contract the disease.

Symptoms at first include fever and sore throat. One of the most dangerous aspects of the illness is the formation of a membrane over the throat, the nose, and into the bronchial tubes, which can significantly impact breathing. Swollen glands under the throat worsen breathing problems. Those with diphtheria often have a croup-like cough which cannot be resolved by exposure to night air.


As the membrane thickens over the throat, physicians may need to perform an intubation, or a tracheotomy to maintain an airway. People with diphtheria usually require hospitalization and administration of intravenous antibiotics in order to recover. To complicate matters, diphtheria may also affect the heart and cause serious cardiac damage. Diphtheria must also be treated with a medication called diphtheria anti-toxin to prevent such damage.

Given the contagiousness of the disease, any case of diphtheria in the US has to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control. The one exception is a relatively minor skin condition that can also be caused by the diphtheria bacterium. This can usually be resolved with oral antibiotics and does not progress to breathing difficulties.

Diphtheria used to claim the lives of thousands of children in the US and in Europe. It is still responsible for many deaths in countries where vaccination is not affordable. Most who die from diphtheria die because of insufficient airway-essentially they suffocate. The progress of this disease is painful to watch for parents who cannot afford treatment or vaccinations.

Development of sulfa drugs, which were followed by antibiotics, were the first steps toward finding a cure for a disease that in children often resulted in a 20% death rate. A successful vaccination was not created until after WWII.

Poorer countries frequently do not have the diphtheria vaccine available, causing periodic outbreaks that kill hundreds of children. Given the effectiveness of the vaccination and its relatively inexpensive cost, losing children to a now preventable disease is avoidable. Efforts to vaccinate those in countries where the vaccine remains too costly fall short of the need. Such an effort, many argue, is of great value, since vaccination could help eradicate diphtheria, and end needless loss of life.


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Post 5

OK anon26967: Do you even now what a vaccine is? It's a weakened version of the virus made so the body can easily defeat it, since no one can get the same disease twice because your body now has the means to destroy it. So yes some people with weaker immunity systems will likely develop symptoms. But they'll be weak symptoms most likely not enough to permanently hurt the person. So would you rather have a vaccine and weakened symptoms? Or the full out disease?

Post 4

Or you can just research it yourself? Even ask a physician. However the point still stands, you have a choice, vaccinate and avoid the trauma this disease brings on, or argue the side effects of a shot and bear the consequences. Either way you were warned.

Post 3

You push immunization quite a bit. I am sure there is a natural way to avoid diphtheria also. What is it? This sight says a reaction can be caused by whooping cough portion of the shot. Do you tell the parents that prior to the shot? The reaction can be prevented if you do.

Post 2

Diphtheria vaccination tends to be one of the vaccinations that causes fewer side effects. It is often administered with pertussiss or whooping cough vaccination, which often results in some low grade fever, soreness at vaccination site and crankiness. Diphtheria vaccine is rarely indicated in severe side effects, and in general if side effects occur they are due to the whooping cough portion of the shot. If any side effects occur from the diphtheria vaccination they are still far less and far fewer than the devastation caused by the disease. I think wisegeek answers this question ethically and fairly, and given the mass deaths caused in other countries that don't have the vaccination, it's pretty clear which is safer. We certainly

aren't hearing about thousands of deaths caused per year by the vaccine in countries where it is used regularly.

Maybe you are worried about the MMR vaccine, potentially indicated in causing autism is some individuals who may already be vulnerable to the disease?

Post 1

Where is the information on adverse reaction and side effects? If people are going to make an educated decision whether to vaccinate their children or not, you have the ethical duty of providing balance information.

Moderator's reply: visit our article, what is diptheria? for more information on the vaccine.

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