What is Diphtheria? – Symptoms, UK Guide

By | Last Updated: 21st June 2019 | This post may contain Affiliate Links

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection, which affects the nose, throat and skin. It can be ‘highly contagious’ and sometimes fatal. Sneezing, coughing and coming into contact with somebody who has the infection, spreads diphtheria.

It can also be spread through items belonging to somebody with the infection, such as clothing or bedding. It can be ‘common’ for people to carry the bacteria without having any symptoms, this can easily spread the infection to other people.

Although Diphtheria is ‘rare’ in England, it’s not rare in other parts of the world. Although cases are reducing the chances of catching Diphtheria increase if you’re visiting an ‘at-risk’ destination. In 2015, there was around 4,500 cases around the world, this is down from 100,000 in 1980. However out of these 4,500 cases around 2,000 deaths occurred. The ‘current’ high-risk regions include India, Africa and Indonesia.


Diphtheria Symptoms

Symptoms of Diphtheria tend to ‘come on’ gradually; they usually begin with a fever and a sore throat. In some ‘severe’ cases it’s not uncommon for white or grey patches to develop in the throat.

The classic symptoms of Diphtheria include:

• A Fever – Usually 38C (100.4F) or more

• Sore Throat

• Breathing Difficulties due to blocked airways

• White or Grey ‘coating’ at the back of the throat

If you feel like you may have some of these symptoms, or know somebody who does. Please seek expert medical assistance from a Doctor or healthcare professional.

Remember…. Please remember this page is a “general guide only”, it’s not official medical advice. It’s always recommended to get professional guidance and diagnosis from your GP.

Diphtheria Vaccination

In Britain most children will be vaccinated against Diphtheria as part of the NHS’ routine ‘Childhood Vaccination Programme’.

This means children should receive five doses of the Diphtheria vaccination to help the body ‘build up’ its level of protection against the disease. In most causes children will be given the vaccine alongside other vaccinations.

In Britain, Diphtheria is regarded as ‘rare’ it usually only affects certain regions of the world because we vaccinate against it. Since 2010 there’s only been around 20 recorded cases of Diphtheria in England and Wales, this unfortunately resulted in one death.

Typically the vaccination against Diphtheria occurs as a child, this happens free of charge on the British National Health Service and it’s part of their routine ‘childhood vaccination schedule.’

It’s important that children receive the vaccine because if vaccination levels ‘fall’ below a certain level, an outbreak could easily occur at any moment.

For example the risk was confirmed in the Diphtheria outbreak in the former Soviet Union between 1990 and 1998. This resulted in around 150,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. The epidemic is blamed on the ‘fall’ of the Berlin wall; this meant the former Soviet Union didn’t ‘keep up’ with their child immunisation programme.

If you plan to travel to a country, which is regarded as ‘at-risk’, please speak to the UK Foreign office, the country’s embassy you’re travelling too or the travel booking agency.


Travel Vaccination against Diphtheria

Generally, if you’re travelling to any of the following regions you should ask your Doctor about a ‘booster’ vaccination if you had the original vaccine as a Child. Your GP will be able to view your medical records to see if you had the vaccine or not.

At the time of publication, ‘at-risk’ regions include: Afghanistan, Brazil, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Nepal, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Africa

It goes without saying that areas, which are considered to be a high risk, can change at any moment. Please seek professional assistance if you’re travelling outside of the United Kingdom.


Diagnosing and Treating Diphtheria

In most cases Diphtheria will be diagnosed by taking a sample of cells from the throat, nose, a wound on the skin. This then gets sent to a local laboratory to see if the bacteria is caused by diphtheria.

If diphtheria is confirmed then it must be treated quickly to prevent any serious complications occurring. Typically, antibiotics and medicine treat diphtheria. Usually this a person will be treated in hospital and they will be in isolation so the chances of the bacteria spreading is low.

Depending on how ‘early’ diphtheria is confirmed there can be complications if the infection has spread to other parts of the body. This obviously varies on a case-by-case basis. Most typical complications of Diphtheria include respiratory failure, which causes serious breathing difficulties. Myocarditis, which inflames the muscles of the heart, paralysis of the diaphragm and nervous system complications.

Diphtheria Vaccination

Serious cases of Diphtheria can also cause bladder problems such as needing to urinate often, passing a small amount of urine or losing control of the bladder completely. Other serious complications can also include severe bleeding problems and kidney failure.

For more professional guidance on the complications, diagnosis and treatment of Diphtheria please seek professional medical assistance from your Doctor.


The History of Diphtheria

Hippocrates first described the disease in the 5th Century BC. It wasn’t until 1613 when Spain experienced an epidemic of the disease. Around a hundred years later in 1735 there was also another serious outbreak in New England.

Before 1826, Diphtheria was known by different names around the world. In England it was officially called ‘Boulogne Soer Throat’. Even though we think Royals are ‘immune’ to diseases, in 1878, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Alice and her family became infected by Diphtheria. This unfortunately caused two fatalities, Princess Alice herself and Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine.

Around ten years after this in 1891, the ‘first person’ to be cured of diphtheria was during the Christmas holiday season in Berlin. Even though a basic cure was found it wasn’t given as standard to the general population throughout the world. In the 1920s, around 100,000 to 200,000 cases of the disease occurred per year in the United States. This would cause around 15,000 deaths annually.

With the outbreak of World War 2, there was once again an epidemic in Europe. This resulted in around one million cases and 50,000 deaths. By 1941 there was a ‘Diphtheria Immunisation Scheme’ in London, which helped to contain the infection in Britain.