Organism, Causative Agent, or Etiologic Agent
Diphtheria is caused by the toxins released by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
Diphtheria is usually spread from person-to-person from respiratory secretions. Occasionally, there may be transmission from contact with skin lesions.
Respiratory diphtheria (includes laryngeal, pharyngeal and tonsillar diphtheria) presents as a sore throat with low-grade fever. Within 2-3 days, a membrane forms that may cover the throat, tonsils, larynx, nose and/or the soft palate. Neck swelling is usually present in severe disease. The membrane can lead to airway obstruction, coma and death.
Cutaneous diphtheria presents as infected skin lesions which lack a characteristic appearance. Cutaneous diphtheria is generally not toxigenic (the bacteria does not release toxins).
Diphtheria toxoid (contained in Tdap, DTP, DTaP, DT or Td vaccines) can prevent this disease. Vaccination against diphtheria is recommended for children and adults.
Respiratory diphtheria has become an extremely rare disease in the U.S. There has not been a case in Texas in over 30 years. Diphtheria is still present in other parts of the world and may be imported by international travelers.