You've Got What?
How infectious diseases are spread and simple and practical advice for preventing the spread of infection in the home and community
Diphtheria is an infection of the throat and nose caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
Diphtheria has been rare in Australia since the introduction of an effective vaccine, but a century ago, was the most common infectious cause of death. Outbreaks still occur in countries where vaccination rates are not high.
Diphtheria is a notifiable condition1
People can carry the diphtheria bacterium harmlessly in the nose and throat (‘carriers’). The diphtheria bacterium is spread when an infected person (patient or carrier) talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. The droplets in the air may be breathed in by those nearby. The diphtheria bacterium is also spread by indirect contact with hands, tissues or other articles soiled by nose and throat discharges, or by indirect contact with skin sores.
The bacteria can also produce a toxin capable of damaging nerves or the heart.
Occasionally these bacteria can cause skin infections, usually in people with poor health or poor hygiene.
Diphtheria is suspected when a white or grey membrane is seen on the back of the throat and is confirmed when the bacteria are seen under the microscope and grown in the laboratory.
(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)
Usually 2 to 5 days.
(time during which an infected person can infect others)
Without antibiotic therapy, usually less than 2 weeks but occasionally as long as 6 months. A person is no longer infectious after treatment with appropriate antibiotics.
Specific treatment with antibiotics and an antidote to the toxin is available.
1 – In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.