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Diphtheria is a reportable disease in Oklahoma.  Diphtheria is an illness caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae.  The bacteria make a toxin that harms nerves and organs such as the heart and kidneys.  It also causes a fever, sore throat, and problems with swallowing.  Diphtheria causes a thick coating to build up in the back of the throat which can make it hard to breathe.  It can be deadly.  Because of vaccines, diphtheria is now rare in the U.S.

In the past when diphtheria was more common, children under 15 years of age who had not received the vaccine were the most likely to get diphtheria.  In recent years, diphtheria is more likely to affect adults who did not receive the vaccine.

Diphtheria is spread from person to person by contact with fluids from the nose and throat, or from skin sores.  Rarely, diphtheria is spread by contact with items soiled with fluids from skin sores of an infected person.

Most of the time, symptoms appear within 2 to 4 days, but may appear any time between 1 to 10 days after infection.  The symptoms of diphtheria vary depending on what part of the body is infected.  The most common infection occurs in the throat and tonsils causing symptoms from a slight fever, chills, and sore throat to a severe feeling of general illness.  In severe cases, neck swelling may occur.  Other symptoms that may occur include hoarseness, barking cough, runny nose, scaly rash and open skin sores.

Usually an infected person is able to spread diphtheria for 2 to 4 weeks after symptoms develop.  The rare chronic carrier (a person with continual infection) may be infectious for 6 months or longer.  Treatment with antibiotics will prevent an infected person from spreading diphtheria.

Antibiotics and antitoxin are used to treat diphtheria.  Also, breathing treatments are often given.

People who live in the same household as a person with diphtheria and people who have close, constant contact with a diphtheria patient should receive antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill.  These people should also be tested for diphtheria and examined every day for 7 days for signs of the disease.  They also may need to be given the diphtheria vaccine.

The main way that diphtheria is prevented is by receiving DTaP vaccination (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis).  The shot series starts with the first dose at 2 months of age and ends with a booster dose given before age 7 with a total of 5 doses.  Adults should receive a booster dose of Td (tetanus, diphtheria) every 10 years.

The risk of DTaP vaccine causing serious harm is extremely small.  However, a vaccine, like any medicine, is able to cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions.  Up to 25% of children may have mild symptoms including:  fever, redness, or soreness/tenderness where the shot was given.  These problems occur more often after the 4th and 5th doses of the DTaP series than after earlier doses.  Sometimes the 4th or 5th dose of DTaP vaccine is followed by swelling of the entire arm or leg in which the shot was given, lasting 1 to 7 days.  Very rarely (1 out of 1 million doses), children may have severe allergic reactions.

All county health departments in Oklahoma administer the DTaP vaccine.  Also, you may speak with your local healthcare provider.

Diphtheria Fact Sheets and Information:

Diphtheria Fact Sheet (156kb.pdf)

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