Diphtheria is a disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae that affects the upper respiratory tract of an individual: nasal cavity, throat, tonsils, and the pharynx. The disease is one of the leading causes of deaths around the world before diphtheria vaccine was discovered. Today, diphtheria cases are often observed countries where vaccination is not yet widespread.
The disease is highly contagious. Aerosolized droplets from a patient's nose and mouth can carry enough bacteria to infect a perfectly healthy individual who comes in contact with it. Even droplets from a patient's mouth when he or she laughs are contagious. Infected people showing no symptoms of diphtheria are already contagious; the incubation period is 2 to 4 days after infection.
Risk factors of diphtheria
Children and adults who are not vaccinated against diphtheria have the highest risk of contracting the disease. Generally, people living in countries where diphtheria vaccination is not prevalent are at risk. Often, diphtheria breaks out in places where population concentration is high and sanitation is inadequate. An individual who have impaired immune system or malnourished is also prone to contract the disease.
People travelling to countries with records of diphtheria outbreaks are advised to get diphtheria vaccine days before their travel.
Symptoms and complications of diphtheria
The early symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat, low fever, swollen neck glands, and watery nasal discharge. Later, swallowing becomes painful and thick gray membrane appears on the patient's throat and tonsils. Diphtheria patients may also have breathing difficulties, fever, chills, and body malaise.
Diphtheria can also affect the skin, which can show as an ulcer covered by gray membranes accompanied by pain, redness, and inflammation.
If diphtheria is left untreated, it can lead to serious complications such as diphtheric myocarditis and neuritis or inflammation of heart muscles and peripheral nerves respectively.
Treatment of diphtheria
Diphtheria patients must be given a course of antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin to kill the causal bacteria: Corynebacterium s. To counteract the effects of toxins released by the diphtheria bacteria, patients are given antitoxins through a vein or injection in a muscle. Doctors will first introduce a small dose of antitoxin to the patient gradually increasing it to optimum amounts once the patient's body have adjusted to the medication.
Diphtheria patients who have developed complications are treated as symptoms arise. For instance, heart medications are given to patients who have developed myocarditis secondary to diphtheria. Patients are continually given intravenous fluids and respiratory aid like ventilation may be needed in severe cases.
Prevention from diphtheria
Diphtheria vaccination is the number one course of action to prevent future infection. Parents are advised to have their babies vaccinated against diphtheria at 2, 4, and 6 months. Booster shots are given 12 to 18 months and then 4 to 6 years later. And another booster shot is recommended every 10 years thereafter to maintain high level of diphtheria antibodies in the body.
Contact with a diphtheria patient must be kept at a minimum also. People exposed to a diphtheria patient must see a doctor for prophylactic treatment. The doctor may advise the person to get a diphtheria vaccine boost and the person may be given antibacterial medication as preventative treatment.