This serious throat infection was a common disease in the past which was fatal if left untreated. However thanks to vaccination it is practically unknown these days.
What is diphtheria?
Diphtheria is an acute infection of the upper respiratory tract which results in the formation of a thick coating across the throat preventing swallowing and in many cases, the ability to breathe.
A strain of bacteria called ‘diptheria bacterium’along with other poisonous toxins enters the body via the throat where due to the moistness of this environment, is able to flourish and multiply.
These bacteria line the tissues or mucous membrane of the nose, throat or even the larynx and emit dangerous toxins as they breed.
They both destroy the mucous membrane and replace it with a thick, white coating which causes a serious throat inflammation. This coating develops as a type of membrane across the entrance to the throat and airways which if it becomes detached can obstruct these. This leads to problems with breathing and a risk of asphyxiation.
Equally serious is the risk of these toxins entering the bloodstream which can damage the heart muscle and other areas of the nervous system.
How do you get diphtheria?
Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease which is spread from one person to another via touching, coughing or sneezing. Sneezing or coughing causes droplets to be released into the air which can be inhaled very easily.
It can be contracted through skin contact although this is much less common.
Another form of transmission is that of a ‘healthy person carrier’. This refers to a person who is harbouring the bacteria but has no signs of diphtheria.
Diphtheria is not usually found in The West as a result of vaccination but it does still occur in parts of the world which are not fully protected by this vaccine.
Symptoms of diphtheria
This starts with a sore throat followed by coughing, raised temperature and a cold.
These symptoms develop in the first few days of the disease.
As diptheria progresses it results in difficulty in breathing due to the formation of the thick coating over the tonsils. This coating or membrane blocks the airways and restricts oxygen intake which can be fatal.
Diphtheria also causes small crusty scabs to form on the skin which are similar in appearance to impetigo. Other symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite and a lack of interest in anything.
If diphtheria is left untreated it will cause damage to the heart and nervous system which, in the worst case scenario, may lead to a heart attack.
So it is important that any cases of suspected diphtheria are treated sooner rather than later.
How is diphtheria diagnosed?
This is done via a throat swab. A small section of tissue is removed which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Treatment for diphtheria
Diagnosing diphtheria at an early stage will prevent the risk of damage to the heart or nervous system. Treatment for this involves antibiotics and a specially developed medication to negate the effects of the diphtheria bacterium.
This treatment usually takes place in hospital.
If you have difficulty in breathing then you will be assisted with this, for example an oxygen mask or a ventilator until the medication has had time to work.
If your diphtheria is at a later stage –when it might have started to affect your nervous system or heart then long term medication and monitoring will be required. This is vital if there are problems with your heart rhythm or you have facial paralysis caused by the toxins.
There is a vaccine available to prevent diphtheria. As a result of this there are very few if any cases of diphtheria in the UK and other countries: although there is always a risk of this being imported from countries which do not have a vaccination programme.
This vaccination is very effective which means that diphtheria has become a very rare disease.
Sore Throat Guide
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