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Bacteria
Corynebacterium diphtheriae
Disease
Diphtheria
Symptoms

Symptoms of diphtheria include fever of 100.4°F or above, chills, fatigue, bluish skin coloration, sore throat, hoarseness, cough, headache, difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing, difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, foul-smelling bloodstained nasal discharge and lymphadenopathy. Symptoms can also include cardiac arrhythmias, myocarditis, and cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

The disease may remain manageable, but in more severe cases, lymph nodes in the neck may swell, and breathing and swallowing will be more difficult. People in this stage should seek immediate medical attention, as obstruction in the throat may require intubation or a tracheotomy. Abnormal cardiac rhythms can occur early in the course of the illness or weeks later, and can lead to heart failure. Diphtheria can also cause paralysis in the eye, neck, throat, or respiratory muscles. Patients with severe cases will be put in a hospital intensive care unit and be given a diphtheria antitoxin. Since antitoxin does not neutralize toxin that is already bound to tissues, delaying its administration is associated with an increase in mortality risk. Therefore, the decision to administer diphtheria antitoxin is based on clinical diagnosis, and should not await laboratory confirmation.

Treatment

Antibiotics have not been demonstrated to affect healing of local infection in diphtheria patients treated with antitoxin. Antibiotics are used in patients or carriers to eradicate C. diphtheriae and prevent its transmission to others. The CDC recommends either:

  • Metronidazole
  • Erythromycin (orally or by injection) for 14 days (40 mg/kg per day with a maximum of 2 g/d), or
  • Procaine penicillin G given intramuscularly for 14 days (300,000 U/d for patients weighing <10 kg and 600,000 U/d for those weighing >10 kg). Patients with allergies to penicillin G or erythromycin can use rifampin or clindamycin.

In cases that progress beyond a throat infection, diphtheria toxin spreads through the blood and can lead to potentially life-threatening complications that affect other organs, such as the heart and kidneys. The toxin can cause damage to the heart that affects its ability to pump blood or the kidneys' ability to clear wastes. It can also cause nerve damage, eventually leading to paralysis. About 40% to 50% of those left untreated can die.

Preventive measures

The prevention of diphtheria is best achieved through universal immunization with diphtheria toxoid-containing vaccines. Immunization for infants and children consists of five DTaP vaccinations generally given at ages 2, 4, and 6 months, with the fourth dose being administered between 15-18 months, and the fifth dose at ages 4-6 years. At age 11-12 years, children should receive a single Tdap vaccination if they have completed the recommended childhood vaccination schedule. Because immunity wanes over time, subsequent booster immunization is required every 10 years thereafter to maintain protective antibody levels.
Travelers to areas where diphtheria is endemic should review and update their vaccinations as necessary.

 
 
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