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Diftèria a Vall d'Hebron

Diphtheria is an acute infectious disease caused by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria and which only affects humans. It may show up as a condition of the upper respiratory tract (tonsils, pharynx and nasal mucosa). The bacteria produces an exotoxin that is responsible for the clinical symptoms of the disease. In adults, it can be fatal in 5-10% of cases, and in children this rises to 20%.


What is diphtheria?

The characteristic symptom of respiratory diphtheria is a greyish white membrane (pseudomembrane) covering the tonsils and pharynx. The membrane tends to be difficult to remove and in doing so the area bleeds easily.



The most common symptoms are:

  • Fever, feeling generally unwell and respiratory obstruction.
  • Neurological and cardiac complications in the most serious cases. These complications can lead to death.


Who does diphtheria affect?

Thanks to vaccination, there have been no cases diagnosed in Spain for over thirty years. In 2015, however, there was one case in a child who had not been vaccinated.

Diphtheria is transmitted through respiration or close physical contact with an infected person or a healthy person carrying the bacteria but who has never shown symptoms.

The incubation period is two to seven days and it can be spread from seven days before symptoms appear up to two or three weeks afterwards. 



Diagnosis is confirmed via microbial culture of clinical samples (swabs from the nasal mucosa, pharynx or pseudomembranes).


Typical treatment

Diphtheria antitoxin medication and an antibiotic such as penicillin G procaine must be given as soon as possible (in the first 48 hours after showing symptoms, without waiting for the laboratory diagnosis).



Vaccination is the main measure to prevent diphtheria and is effective in 95% of cases. It must be periodically boosted as the effects of the vaccination do not last for ever.

Epidemiological monitoring and prophylaxis are essential to control the bacteria and to avoid secondary cases.

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Dr. Vicenç
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