The Diphtheria


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A gray, leathery blob in the back of a person’s mouth is shown and the label “pseudomembrane” points to it.
The pseudomembrane in a patient with diphtheria presents as a leathery gray patch consisting of dead cells, pus, fibrin, red blood cells, and infectious microbes. (credit: modification of work by Putnong N, Agustin G, Pasubillo M, Miyagi K, Dimaano EM)

OpenStax Microbiology

The causative agent of diphtheriaCorynebacterium diphtheriae, is a club-shaped, gram-positive rod that belongs to the phylum Actinobacteria. Diphtheroids are common members of the normal nasopharyngeal microbiota. However, some strains of C. diphtheriae become pathogenic because of the presence of a temperate bacteriophage-encoded protein—the diphtheria toxin. Diphtheria is typically a respiratory infection of the oropharynx but can also cause impetigo-like lesions on the skin. Although the disease can affect people of all ages, it tends to be most severe in those younger than 5 years or older than 40 years. Like strep throat, diphtheria is commonly transmitted in the droplets and aerosols produced by coughing. After colonizing the throat, the bacterium remains in the oral cavity and begins producing the diphtheria toxin. This protein is an A-B toxin that blocks host-cell protein synthesis by inactivating elongation factor (EF)-2. The toxin’s action leads to the death of the host cells and an inflammatory response. An accumulation of grayish exudate consisting of dead host cells, pus, red blood cells, fibrin, and infectious bacteria results in the formation of a pseudomembrane. The pseudomembrane can cover mucous membranes of the nasal cavity, tonsils, pharynx, and larynx. This is a classic sign of diphtheria. As the disease progresses, the pseudomembrane can enlarge to obstruct the fauces of the pharynx or trachea and can lead to suffocation and death. Sometimes, intubation, the placement of a breathing tube in the trachea, is required in advanced infections. If the diphtheria toxin spreads throughout the body, it can damage other tissues as well. This can include myocarditis (heart damage) and nerve damage that may impair breathing.

The presumptive diagnosis of diphtheria is primarily based on the clinical symptoms (i.e., the pseudomembrane) and vaccination history, and is typically confirmed by identifying bacterial cultures obtained from throat swabs. The diphtheria toxin itself can be directly detected in vitro using polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based, direct detection systems for the diphtheria tox gene, and immunological techniques like radial immunodiffusion or Elek’s immunodiffusion test.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin tend to effectively control C. diphtheriae infections. Regrettably, they have no effect against preformed toxins. If toxin production has already occurred in the patient, antitoxins (preformed antibodies against the toxin) are administered. Although this is effective in neutralizing the toxin, the antitoxins may lead to serum sickness because they are produced in horses.

Widespread vaccination efforts have reduced the occurrence of diphtheria worldwide. There are currently four combination toxoid vaccines available that provide protection against diphtheria and other diseases: DTaP, Tdap, DT, and Td. In all cases, the letters “d,” “t,” and “p” stand for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, respectively; the “a” stands for acellular. If capitalized, the letters indicate a full-strength dose; lowercase letters indicate reduced dosages. According to current recommendations, children should receive five doses of the DTaP vaccine in their youth and a Td booster every 10 years. Children with adverse reactions to the pertussis vaccine may be given the DT vaccine in place of the DTaP.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: