Doctors may suspect diphtheria in a sick child who has a sore throat with a gray membrane covering the tonsils and throat. Growth of C. diphtheriae in a lab culture of material from the throat membrane confirms the diagnosis. Doctors can also take a tissue sample from an infected wound and have it tested in a lab to check for the type of diphtheria that affects the skin (cutaneous diphtheria).
If a doctor suspects diphtheria, treatment begins immediately, even before the results of bacterial tests are available.
Diphtheria is a serious illness. Doctors treat it immediately and aggressively. Doctors first ensure that the airway isn't blocked or reduced. In some cases, they may need to place a breathing tube in the throat to keep the airway open until the airway is less inflamed. Treatments include:
- Antibiotics. Antibiotics, such as penicillin or erythromycin, help kill bacteria in the body, clearing up infections. Antibiotics lessen the time that someone with diphtheria is contagious.
An antitoxin. If a doctor suspects diphtheria, he or she will request a medication that counteracts the diphtheria toxin in the body. This medication comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Called an antitoxin, this drug is injected into a vein or muscle.
Before giving an antitoxin, doctors may perform skin allergy tests. These are done to make sure that the infected person doesn't have an allergy to the antitoxin. If someone has an allergy, the doctor will likely recommend that he or she not get the antitoxin.
Children and adults who have diphtheria often need to be in the hospital for treatment. They may be isolated in an intensive care unit because diphtheria can spread easily to anyone not vaccinated against the disease.
If you've been exposed to a person infected with diphtheria, see a doctor for testing and possible treatment. Your doctor may give you a prescription for antibiotics to help prevent you from developing the disease. You may also need a booster dose of the diphtheria vaccine.
People found to be carriers of diphtheria are treated with antibiotics to clear their systems of the bacteria as well.
Recovering from diphtheria requires lots of bed rest. Avoiding any physical exertion is particularly important if your heart has been affected. You may need to get your nutrition through liquids and soft foods for a while because of pain and difficulty swallowing.
Strict isolation while you're contagious helps prevent the spread of the infection. Careful hand-washing by everyone in your home is important for limiting the spread of the infection.
Once you recover from diphtheria, you'll need a full course of diphtheria vaccine to prevent a recurrence. Unlike some other infections, having diphtheria doesn't guarantee lifetime immunity. You can get diphtheria more than once if you're not fully vaccinated against it.
Preparing for your appointment
If you have symptoms of diphtheria or have come into contact with someone who has diphtheria, call your doctor right away. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and on your vaccination history, you may be told to go to the emergency room or call 911 or your local emergency number for medical help.
If your doctor determines that he or she should see you first, try to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready and know what to expect from your doctor.
Information to gather in advance
- Pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make your appointment, ask if there are any restrictions you need to follow in the time leading up to your visit, including whether you should be isolated to avoid spreading the infection.
- Office visit instructions. Ask your doctor whether you should be isolated when you come to the office for your appointment.
- Symptom history. Write down any symptoms you've been experiencing, and for how long.
- Recent exposure to possible sources of infection. Your doctor will be especially interested to know if you have recently traveled abroad and where.
- Vaccination record. Find out before your appointment whether your vaccinations are up to date. Bring a copy of your vaccination record, if possible.
- Medical history. Make a list of your key medical information, including other conditions for which you're being treated and any medications, vitamins or supplements you're currently taking.
- Questions to ask your doctor. Write down your questions in advance so that you can make the most of your time with your doctor.
The list below suggests questions to ask your doctor about diphtheria. Don't hesitate to ask more questions during your appointment.
- What do you think is causing my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatments are available for diphtheria?
- Are there any possible side effects from the medications I'll be taking?
- How long will it take for me to get better?
- Are there any long-term complications from diphtheria?
- Am I contagious? How can I reduce the risk of passing my illness to others?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, too, such as:
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- Have you had any trouble breathing, a sore throat or difficulty swallowing?
- Have you had a fever? How high was the fever at its peak, and how long did it last?
- Have you recently been exposed to anyone with diphtheria?
- Is anyone close to you having similar symptoms?
- Have you recently traveled abroad? Where?
- Did you update your vaccinations before traveling?
- Are all your vaccinations current?
- Are you being treated for any other medical conditions?