Diphtheria – History & Facts

Diphtheria – History & Facts

In the 1920’s the most common cause of death and illness in children was Diphtheria.  DIphtheria is a bacterial infection that causes a grey mucous membrane to form over the back of the throat and tonsils.  In 1921 there were 206,000 reported cases of diphtheria in the United States and 15,520 reported deaths. One of the most well known outbreaks of Diphtheria is the outbreak in Nome, Alaska.  That lead to a sled dog relay of the antitoxin to Nome. The sled dogs traveling over 674miles to carry the antitoxin back to the small town to save the confirmed 20 cases of diphtheria and about 50 others cases that were at risk.  If the town had not received the antitoxin the mortality rate could have grown to about 100% wiping out the entire population in that part of Alaska.

Diphtheria is easily spread by airborne droplets, or handling items from an infected person or being exposed to an infected person.  Thankfully there is a vaccine for diphtheria that now has brought down less than 20,000 cases per year worldwide. And brings the death percentage down to just 3% of people who end up with diphtheria die. 

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection.  Once you get the disease it can take from two to five days for you to become symptomatic.  The first sign of the disease is the grey mucous membrane that forms over the back of the throat and tonsils.  This can then cause you to have a sore throat, hoarseness, swollen glands, difficulty breathing, or rapid breathing, nasal drippage, fever, and chills.  Some people can have diphtheria and not be symptomatic. And the severity of how sick you get depends on the person as well. Some people will develop all of the symptoms where others may only have a sore throat.  You can be a carrier of the disease without showing any symptoms at all.     

Diphtheria affects children so greatly because of the mucousy build up that forms in the back of the throat.  This can cause difficulty breathing and can lead to death by suffocation in small children. Nowadays that medicine has advanced so greatly diphtheria can be treated with a full recovery if caught early enough.  The death rate has dropped significantly. A doctor usually catches diphtheria by looking in the throat and visibly seeing the grey membrane. If the doctor sees this they will take a throat culture to be sure. After the throat culture you doctor is likely to keep you in the hospital under isolation.  Since diphtheria is easily spread you will be kept under isolation until your symptoms have gone away. If you have not been given the vaccine to help prevent diphtheria, a way to treat the disease is an antitoxin.

Diphtheria is caused by a bacterial toxin, so the antitoxin given will stop the bacterial toxin from circulating in the body. The antitoxin will be administered in a vein or muscle.  It works like a neutralizer stopping the bacterial toxin.

Another option is antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria in your body, so giving penicillin or erythromycin can help your body kill off the diphtheria bacteria in your body.

In some cases the build up of the grey matter in the back of the throat gets so thick it can cause difficulty breathing. If this happens your doctor may have to scrape away some of the matter to keep your airwa