What is Diphtheria?
Diphtheria is a very contagious and serious bacterial disease. Symptoms include sore throat, low-grade fever, and swollen neck glands. The toxin or poison, caused by the bacteria also causes a thick coating on the tonsils, throat, and/or nasal cavity. As the infection progresses, the person may have difficulty breathing or swallowing, complain of double vision, have slurred speech and signs of shock with pale/cold skin, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and an anxious appearance. If the disease progresses beyond this point the toxin can spread into the blood stream and cause life-threatening injury to the heart, kidney and other organs. Nerve damage and paralysis can also result.
Before the diphtheria vaccine was introduced, the United States had between 100,000 to 200,000 cases of diphtheria each year. Since the introduction of the vaccine for diphtheria, the disease has dramatically declined in the U.S. In the past decade, there were less than five cases of diphtheria in the U.S. reported to CDC. However, several thousand cases of diphtheria still occur around the world every year.
For some people, diphtheria can lead to death. Even with treatment about 1 out of 10 (10%) diphtheria patients die (with higher death rates - up to 20% - in children younger than 5 years old and adults older than 40 years old). Without treatment, as many as 1 out of 2 (50%) patients can die from the disease.
The DTaP vaccine (diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis) protects children from diphtheria. Five doses of DTaP are recommended and should be given to children at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15 and 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years of age.
The Td vaccine (diphtheria and tetanus toxoids vaccine) and the Tdap vaccine (diphtheria and tetanus toxoids vaccine and acellular pertussis) protect adolescents and adults against the disease. Two doses of Tdap are recommended for adolescents. The first dose at age 11 or 12 and the second dose between 13 and 18 years of age.
Adults should receive one dose of Td every 10 years, and should substitute a one time dose of Tdap for one of their Td boosters. Women should receive a dose of Tdap at each pregnancy, preferably in their third trimester.