Diphtheria: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Diphtheria - livayur

This article is reviewed by Dr. Jyoti Lakhani

Diphtheria is a severe upper respiratory tract infection caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium Diphtheriae. The disease, named after the Greek word for “hide or leather,” refers to the pseudomembrane that forms during an infection, resembling leather. Though diphtheria was once a common and deadly disease, widespread vaccination has made it rare in developed countries. However, it remains a concern in some developing nations where vaccination rates are lower. 

This article explores the causes of diphtheria and its transmission, along with the symptoms it presents. 

What is Diphtheria and what are its causes

Diphtheria  is a serious infection of the upper respiratory tract and is caused by the ‘Corynebacterium Diphtheriae’ bacteria. The disease is named after the Greek word “diphtheria,” which means “hide or leather.” This is because the pseudomembrane that forms during a diphtheria infection can look like leather. Diphtheria was once a common disease, but it is now rare in developed countries due to widespread vaccination, however, the disease is still a problem in some developing countries, where vaccination rates are lower. [1]

Symptoms  of Diphtheria 

After getting infected with diphtheria, the symptoms usually start showing up within two to seven days. These symptoms can include:

  • Fever of 38°C (100.4°F) or higher
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Bluish skin coloration (cyanosis)
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Painful swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Foul-smelling, blood stained nasal discharge
  • Swollen lymph nodes

In some cases, diphtheria can also lead to more severe problems like heart issues, nerve palsies, or swelling in the neck and throat, known as “Bull-neck.” When the throat is swollen, it can cause serious breathing problems, with a “barking” cough, hoarseness, and difficulty breathing, which is sometimes referred to as “croup.” However, thanks to diphtheria vaccination, this severe form of croup is now very rare in countries where vaccination is common. Croup, most often refers to a milder viral illness with similar respiratory symptoms. [2]

Causes and Transmission of Diphtheria 

Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially dangerous infection caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium Diphtheriae. This gram-positive bacterium primarily affects the respiratory system, although it can also invade other body regions.The primary mode of transmission is through respiratory droplets or direct contact with an infected individual or contaminated objects. Diphtheria usually targets the throat, leading to the formation of a thick grayish membrane that can obstruct the airway and cause breathing difficulties. Furthermore, this bacterium produces toxins that can spread throughout the body, resulting in potentially severe complications affecting vital organs like the heart and nervous system. [3] ,[4], [5]

Treatment and Natural Home Remedies for Diphtheria 

Diphtheria requires prompt medical attention and treatment. Vaccination is a highly effective way to prevent diphtheria. The diphtheria vaccine is usually administered in combination with vaccines for tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), known as the DTaP vaccine (for children) or Tdap vaccine (for adolescents and adults). [6]

While vaccination remains the most effective method to prevent diphtheria, individuals can consider using home remedies as complementary measures alongside standard medical care for the condition.

Rest and hydration: Resting is crucial to help the body fight off the infection and recover. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids is also important to prevent dehydration, especially if the individual has a fever.

Warm saline gargles: Gargling with warm saline water can help soothe a sore throat and reduce inflammation. It may provide temporary relief from the discomfort associated with diphtheria. [5]

Nutritious diet: Providing a balanced and nutritious diet can aid in the recovery process. Including foods rich in vitamins and minerals can support the immune system and overall health.

Gargle with salt water: Salt can be a beneficial remedy for soothing a sore throat. Simply mix some salt in a glass of water and drink it to alleviate the discomfort. Gargling with salt water is also a proven technique to ease a sore throat. Additionally, in cases where breathing problems are caused by a deficiency of salt in the body, consuming salt water can be helpful. [5]

Maintain good hygiene: Practising good hygiene, such as regular handwashing, to reduce the spread of the bacteria.


Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection caused by Corynebacterium Diphtheriae, which can lead to life-threatening complications if not treated promptly. However, with the availability of vaccines and proper preventive measures, the incidence of diphtheria can be significantly reduced, protecting individuals and communities from this potentially deadly disease. 


 What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

The symptoms of diphtheria can vary depending on the severity of the infection, but they typically include fever, sore throat, cough, difficulty swallowing, and a grayish membrane that can form on the throat. In severe cases, diphtheria can lead to heart problems, nerve damage, and even death.

2. Is there a vaccine for diphtheria?

Yes, there is a vaccine for diphtheria. The vaccine is usually given as part of a combination vaccine that also protects against tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). The vaccine is very effective at preventing diphtheria, and it is recommended that all children receive it.

3. How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The bacteria can also be spread through contact with contaminated objects, such as toys or utensils.

4. What are the treatments for diphtheria?

The treatment for diphtheria includes antibiotics and supportive care. Antibiotics help to kill the bacteria, and supportive care includes measures to relieve symptoms such as pain and fever. In severe cases, hospitalisation may be necessary.

5. How can I prevent diphtheria?

The best way to prevent diphtheria is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is very effective at preventing the disease, and it is recommended that all children receive it. Other ways to prevent diphtheria include practicing good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently, and avoiding contact with people who are sick.

6. What are the long-term complications of diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that can cause a number of long-term complications, including heart problems, nerve damage, hearing loss, kidney problems, and death. The risk of long-term complications is higher in people who are not vaccinated or who have a weakened immune system. The best way to prevent the long-term complications of diphtheria is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is very effective at preventing the disease, and it is recommended that all children receive it.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is for general information and not meant to substitute any medical advice. Please consult your doctor for appropriate medical consultation.

References : 

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32644441/
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306110687_Diphtheria_Clinical_Manifestations_Diagnosis_and_Role_of_ImmunizationIn_Prevention
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559015/
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/causes-transmission.htm
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16242593/
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/dtap-tdap-td/public/index.html

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The LivAyur Team includes more than 10 Ayurveda specialists, with more than 20 years of experience. They have a deep understanding of Ayurveda and are committed to sharing their expertise through our blogs, videos, live sessions, and consultations. Our experts also stay updated & monitor on the latest developments in health and wellness.