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Diphtheria (cont.)

Diphtheria Symptoms and Signs

The symptoms and signs of respiratory diphtheria may initially be similar to a viral upper respiratory infection, however, the symptoms become more severe with the progression of the disease. Generally speaking, individuals exposed to diphtheria begin to experience symptoms between two to five days after the initial infection, though some individuals may not experience any symptoms at all (asymptomatic). The symptoms and signs of respiratory diphtheria may include the following:

As respiratory diphtheria progresses, individuals may develop the classic adherent thick, gray membrane (pseudomembrane) forming over the lining tissue of the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavity. Extension of this pseudomembrane into the larynx and trachea can lead to obstruction of the airway with subsequent suffocation and death.

The systemic manifestations of diphtheria are caused by the effects of the diphtheria toxin and its subsequent dissemination to other organs away from the initial area of infection. Commonly affected organs include the heart and nervous system, leading to complications such as inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), cardiac rhythm and conduction disturbances, muscle weakness, numbness (nerve), and vision changes.

Cutaneous diphtheria is characterized by an initially painful red lesion that eventually becomes a non-healing ulcer covered with a gray-brown membrane. This mild localized infection is only rarely associated with systemic complications.

When to Seek Medical Care for Diphtheria

As mentioned above, the initial symptoms of diphtheria may be similar to those of a viral upper respiratory infection (a cold). However, there are certain symptoms and conditions which should warrant a visit to your health-care provide for further evaluation should they develop:

  • Severe sore throat or the inability to swallow
  • Neck swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme weakness or numbness
  • Exposure to someone with known or suspected diphtheria
  • Fever in individuals with a compromised immune system.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/23/2015
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