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Corynebacterium diphtheriae


Before the introduction of vaccines, diphtheria was a leading cause of childhood death worldwide, including in the United States.

Diphtheria is a severe infection caused by strains of bacteria called Corynebacterium Diphtheriae that make a toxin that causes people to get very sick.

Diphtheria bacteria spread from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets, like from coughing or sneezing.  People can also get sick from touching infected open sores or ulcers.

Immunization for diphtheria is accomplished with a toxoid (a modified version of the diphtheria toxin). Diphtheria toxoid is not given alone but is combined with tetanus and pertussis vaccine in a preparation called DTaP.


With the introduction of effective immunizations in the 1920s,  diphtheria rates have dropped dramatically in the United States and other countries that vaccinate widely.  Between 2004 and 2008, no cases of diphtheria were recorded in the United States.

Diphtheria can infect the respiratory tract (parts of the body involved in breathing) and skin. Symptoms of diphtheria depend on the body part that is affected.

Symptoms of respiratory diphtheria are:


  • Swollen neck lymph nodes 

  • Throat is covered by a gray thick membrane

  • Feeling of discomfort or illness

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Fever

  • Sore Throat

  • Cough

  • Wheezing

  • May cause Respiratory failure


Symptoms of cutaneous diphtheria are:


  • Ulcers covered by a gray thick membrane

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • Pain


Diphtheria causes a thick, gray coating to build up in the throat, nose, or respiratory tract. This coating can make it hard to breathe and swallow. Diphtheria skin infections can cause open sores or shallow ulcers.

Additionally, Diphtheria may travel to the heart, muscle, kidneys, and liver, temporarily or permanently damage these organs. Complications from diphtheria may include:

  • Myocarditis (damage to the heart muscle).

  • Neuritis (inflammation of nerves, which may contribute to nerve damage, paralysis, respiratory failure, and pneumonia).

  • Airway obstruction.

  • Ear infection.

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