What is diphtheria, symptoms, treatment and prevention (vaccine)

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria, which can also be called croup, is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium known as Corynebacterium diphtheriae , transmitted from person to person through the airways or through physical contact.

The bacterium forms yellowish plaques that lodge in the tonsils, larynx, pharynx, nose and even the skin. In severe cases of diphtheria, swelling in the neck enlarging the lymph nodes can occur causing difficulty in breathing or blocking the breathing altogether, leading to the death of the patient.

In addition, the toxin is capable of:

  • Destroy the tissue at the site of infection;
  • Inhibit the production of proteins by cells;
  • Decrease platelet count (thrombocytopenia);
  • Produce protein in urine (proteinuria);
  • The toxin can be installed in the bloodstream.

The disease can be prevented with vaccination. Diphtheria affects more children than adults. Despite being more common in younger people, mortality from the disease affects 5 to 10% of children and 20% of adults over 40 years of age.

The incidence of the disease in Brazil is very small, with less than 50 cases per year, which characterizes the disease as very rare. Mortality is even lower.

Index – in this article you will find the following information:

  1. What is diphtheria?
  2. Causes and transmission
  3. Groups of risk
  4. Diphtheria symptoms
  5. Diagnosis
  6. Diphtheria treatment
  7. Living together
  8. Complications
  9. Diphtheria prevention

Causes and transmission

The disease is transmitted by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which lodges itself in the infected patient. The places most affected by the bacteria are the respiratory tract and the skin.

The transmission of the disease is done through droplets of respiratory secretion, with sneezing, coughing or even during conversations, and can also occur through the consumption of raw milk.

Until the first symptoms appear, it takes between 1 and 6 days. The person who is already infected can transmit the disease for up to 15 days after the first contact with diphtheria. After treatment, the bacteria can remain inactive in the body for 6 months or more.

The progression of the disease happens in an incubation period between 3 and 5 days. The bacteria are colonized in the tonsils and pharynx, causing pseudomembranous plaques in the tonsils. Infection with pus can still happen in the nose and conjunctiva (mucosa of the eyes).

Groups of risk

The people most susceptible to the disease are those who:

  • They have low immunity;
  • They live in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions;
  • Go to cities where diphtheria is endemic;
  • They did not receive the vaccine.

Diphtheria symptoms

The most common symptoms among people with diphtheria are:

  • Cough;
  • Fever between 38 and 40 degrees;
  • Pain and inflammation in the throat;
  • Hoarseness;
  • Headache;
  • Paralysis of the neck, throat;
  • Toxemia;
  • Wheezing in the chest when breathing;
  • Pain and difficulty swallowing;
  • Paralysis of the eyes;
  • Malaise;
  • Catarrh;
  • Paralysis of the muscles of the respiratory system;
  • Red spots on the skin;
  • Appearance of grayish pseudomembranous plaques in the tonsils;
  • Tiredness;
  • Prostration;
  • Nasal discharge;
  • Nausea;
  • Mechanical asphyxia.

In some cases, the symptoms are not noticeable even though the disease is present in the body.


The diagnosis can be made by medical specialists in the field of pediatrics, dermatology, infectious diseases and general practice.

In order for the diagnosis to be made more quickly, the patient can go to the consultation already with a series of questions previously answered, such as, for example:

  • If vaccination against the disease has been carried out;
  • If any relative or close person has the same symptoms;
  • If it is difficult to breathe;
  • If any person you have lived with recently has the problem;
  • If there was a fever symptom;
  • If the patient is being treated for any other disease.

The test that is done for the diagnosis to be given is the culture test, which is done by taking a sample of the inflammation, which can affect the skin or throat, in addition to a physical test that the doctor can perform.

Diphtheria treatment

Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics , as it is caused by bacteria. As soon as the diagnosis is made, treatment should be started. The patient must isolate himself from other people and receive antidiphtheria serum. If obstruction of the respiratory duct occurs, tracheostomy can be performed on an emergency basis.

There is still the possibility of vaccination to neutralize the toxin that is already present in the body.

The medications indicated to treat diphtheria are:

  • Doxycycline ;
  • Bepeben ;
  • Ciprofloxacin .

Although the drugs are mentioned here, it is essential that the doctor prescribes, because only he will be able to say which is the most suitable for you, in addition to being responsible for saying the dosage. The self-medication can bring even more problems to the disease.


NEVER self-medicate or stop using a medication without first consulting a doctor. Only he will be able to tell which medication, dosage and duration of treatment is the most suitable for his specific case. The information contained on this site is only intended to inform, not in any way intended to replace the guidance of a specialist or serve as a recommendation for any type of treatment. Always follow the instructions on the package insert and, if symptoms persist, seek medical or pharmaceutical advice.

Living together

There are some tips that can help in the diphtheria crisis. Significant throat relief and comfort can be provided with very hot steam. If not, it is recommended that the patient breathe fresh air.

As soon as the symptoms appear, it is necessary to consult the doctor so that he can make the diagnosis and, consequently, the treatment of the disease. It is very important to respect the vaccination dates for diphtheria.


If the disease is not treated, swelling in the throat can happen, requiring a tracheostomy to clear the pathway. If heart rate increases, it can result in cardiac arrest.

It may still occur:

  • Myocarditis;
  • Paralysis;
  • Airway block;
  • Pulmonary infection.

Diphtheria prevention

The best way to prevent the disease is with vaccination, either pentavalent or triple bacterial.

Pentavalent is indicated to treat, in addition to diphtheria, whooping cough , tetanus, hepatitis B and other diseases caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B. Children from 2 months of age can be vaccinated.

The triple bacterial vaccine that prevents diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis is indicated for children over 7 years of age. After that age, the adult type triple bacterial vaccine is indicated.

It is important to keep your vaccination card up to date, as immunity is not definitive. If yours does not have the stamp or mark, it is important to consult the nearest clinic to look for the correct immunization.