Questions & Answers
Diphtheria - The Disease
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  1. What are possible complications from diphtheria?
    Most complications of diphtheria are due to diphtheria toxin. The toxin can cause swelling of the heart, leading to abnormal heart rhythms. It can also cause swelling of the nerves, which may cause temporary paralysis of some muscles. If the paralysis affects the diaphragm (the major muscle for breathing), the patient may develop pneumonia or respiratory failure. The thick membrane coating the back of the throat may cause serious breathing problems, even suffocation.

  2. How do I know if someone has diphtheria?
    The diagnosis of diphtheria can only be confirmed by laboratory testing. However, treatment is usually begun based on clinical suspicion, because early treatment improves the likelihood that a person recovers.

  3. How long is a person with diphtheria contagious?
    About 48 hours after antibiotics are started, a person is no longer contagious. However, some individuals continue to carry diphtheria bacteria even after antibiotic therapy. This is called the carrier state. Carriers should continue treatment until three consecutive laboratory tests for diphtheria are negative. People caring for a patient with diphtheria should take standard contact precautions and ensure their diphtheria immunization is up-to-date.