Diphtheria is a very contagious and potentially life-threatening infection caused by bacteria. The infection usually attacks the throat and nose, but in serious cases it can attack the heart and nerves. Diphtheria is spread when someone comes into contact with fluid from an infected person’s mouth, nose, or skin.
Early symptoms include a sore throat and mild fever. A membrane forms over the throat and tonsils making it hard to swallow and may eventually block the airway. If not properly treated, the infection can damage the heart muscles causing heart failure or paralyzing the muscles used to breathe.
Immunizing starting at infancy can prevent diphtheria. The diphtheria vaccine is given in combination with the pertussis and tetanus vaccine, which is given as a series of five injections over time, starting at two months through 5 years. After that the diphtheria and tetanus booster is given every 10 years to provide protection. Since the widespread use of the vaccine began in the United States, cases of diphtheria have been rare. However, diphtheria has reemerged in some parts of the world at near epidemic levels. In the United States, cases are being seen in persons who have not been immunized or who did not receive boosters to maintain immunity. Routine immunization of both children and adults is essential to prevent the reemergence of diphtheria in the United States.