Defend Yourself from Diphtheria: Bacterial Infection Can Stop Breathing

Philip Huang, MD
Philip Huang, MD

Mega Doctor News

The bottom line: Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that affects the respiratory system and damages the heart, nerves, and kidneys. It can hinder or stop breathing and causes fatigue, sore throat, fever, and swollen neck glands. The infection can be deadly without any medical treatment. Several immunizations are available to protect people against this disease.

“Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that spreads from person to person, usually through coughing or sneezing and sometimes through touching infected people’s open sores,” said Philip Huang, MD, a Dallas public health and preventive medicine specialist. A person can also become infected by sharing a drink or something else used by someone infected with Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the bacteria that causes diphtheria. Being able to breathe isn’t something to take lightly – and for someone diagnosed with diphtheria, breathing becomes so difficult that it could stop.

“Most people feel sick from diphtheria two to five days after contracting it,” said Dr. Huang, a member of the Texas Medical Association (TMA) Council on Science and Public Health. Respiratory diphtheria affects breathing and is the most common type of the disease (the other is skin diphtheria).

“Diphtheria’s bacteria can attach to the respiratory tract and produce a toxin,” Dr. Huang said. “The poison destroys respiratory tissues, making breathing and swallowing difficult. The toxin also can damage the heart, nerves, and kidneys, and cause respiratory failure.” Patients also have a runny nose, sore throat, hoarseness, fever, and chills. In addition to organ damage, diphtheria can cause paralysis.

Doctors treat the disease with a diphtheria antitoxin to stop the poison produced by the bacteria from damaging the body. Antibiotics are then used to kill and get rid of the bacteria.

But if diphtheria isn’t treated right away, it can be deadly. Dr. Huang said quick care is crucial. “Without treatment, up to half of the patients can die,” Dr. Huang said. “Even with treatment, about 1 in 10 patients dies.”

Diphtheria cases were most prominent in the early 20th century. In 1920, the infection affected more than 200,000 people and killed 15,000 in the U.S. alone. Then the vaccine to prevent it was introduced. In 2016, after the vaccine was used for decades, only about 7,100 diphtheria cases were reported worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

(Interesting side note: Back before the vaccine was widely given, doctors used sled dogs to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, to beat an epidemic. This was years before the famed Iditarod sled-dog race.)

Vaccine is the best way to prevent diphtheria today. The diphtheria vaccine, along with tetanus and pertussis, became routine for children in the 1940s.

Today, all age groups can get the shot to avoid getting diphtheria. Four different vaccines are available. CDC recommends this vaccine schedule:

  • Infants and children under the age of 7: DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) at 2, 4, and 6 months; 15 to 18 months; and between 4 to 6 years of age. They can also receive the DT (diphtheria and tetanus) vaccine.
  • Older children (starting at age 11) and adults: Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), and later, Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster vaccines.
  • Doctors also recommend adults get a Tdap booster every 10 years, and expectant women are advised to get Tdap during pregnancy.

“This disease is awful and can be deadly. Protect yourself!” said Dr. Huang.