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Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. There are two types of diphtheria: respiratory and cutaneous. Respiratory diphtheria involves the nose, throat and tonsils, and cutaneous diphtheria involves the skin. Cutaneous diphtheria is discussed below.

Respiratory diphtheria presents as a sore throat with low-grade fever and a membrane attached to the tonsils, pharynx, or nose. Neck swelling is usually present in severe disease. Respiratory diphtheria can lead to severe breathing problems, heart failure, blood disorders, paralysis, coma and even death.

Respiratory diphtheria is extremely rare in the United States because of widespread immunization. Most of the infrequent cases of diphtheria in the U.S. are among unvaccinated or inadequately vaccinated persons, particularly those who travel to areas where diphtheria is common and those who come into close contact with travelers from such areas.

Diphtheria is transmitted from person to person through close contact with the discharge from an infected person's eyes, nose, throat or skin.

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