to seek medical advice
Call your family doctor immediately if you or your child
has signs or symptoms of diphtheria or if anyone in your family is
exposed to diphtheria. If you're not sure if your child has been
vaccinated against diphtheria, make an appointment. Make sure your own
immunizations are current.
Screening and diagnosis
Doctors may suspect diphtheria in a sick child who has a
sore throat with a gray membrane covering the tonsils and throat.
Doctors confirm the diagnosis by taking a sample of the membrane from
the child's throat with a swab and having the bacteria grown (cultured)
in a laboratory.
Doctors can also take a sample of tissue from an infected
wound and have it tested in a laboratory, to test for cutaneous
If a doctor suspects diphtheria, treatment begins
immediately, even before the results of bacterial tests are available.
Left untreated, diphtheria can lead to:
Diphtheria-causing bacteria may produce a toxin, a poison. This
toxin damages tissue in the immediate area of infection — the nose
and throat, for example. This localized infection produces a tough,
gray-colored membrane — which is composed of dead cells, bacteria
and other substances — on mucous membranes inside your nose and
throat. This membrane, or covering, is dangerous because it can
The diphtheria toxin may spread through your bloodstream and damage
other tissues in your body, such as your heart muscle. One
complication of diphtheria is inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis).
Signs and symptoms of myocarditis include fever, vague chest pain,
joint pain and an abnormally fast heart rate. Damage to the heart
from myocarditis may be only slight, showing up as minor
abnormalities on an electrocardiogram, or very severe, leading to
congestive heart failure and sudden death.
The diphtheria toxin may damage the kidneys, affecting their ability
to filter wastes from the blood.
The toxin can also cause nerve damage, targeting certain nerves such
as those to the throat, making swallowing difficult. Nerves to the
arms and legs may also become inflamed, causing muscle weakness. In
severe cases, nerves that help control the muscles used in breathing
may be damaged, leading to paralysis of these muscles and trouble
With treatment, most people with diphtheria survive these
complications, but recovery is often slow. Diphtheria is fatal in
approximately 10 percent of cases.
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