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Ophthalmologic Manifestations of Diphtheria

  • Author: Andrew A Dahl, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: Hampton Roy, Sr, MD  more...
Updated: Jan 17, 2014


The name diphtheria is derived from the Greek root for leather, which is descriptive for the pharyngeal membrane that characterizes the disease. Although its symptoms have been discussed by many authors of ancient and modern times, diphtheria has been known by its present name only since Bretonneau published a treatise in 1823. Hippocrates clinically described it, and, in the 20th century, diphtheria evolved from a major public health problem to a medical curiosity within the developed nations through the use of immunization measures.

Conjunctivitis diphtheritica has the property of exciting profuse exudation in the tissue of the conjunctivae, which has a great tendency to coagulate, leading to necrosis of the infiltrated tissue.



Diphtheria is an acute infectious disease caused by the gram-positive bacillus Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is characterized by a primary lesion, usually within the respiratory tract, and more generalized symptoms caused by release and spread of bacterial exotoxins throughout the body. Diphtheria most commonly affects children younger than 10 years. Humans are the only known reservoir for C diphtheriae. The primary modes of spread are via airborne droplets or contact with respiratory secretions or exudates from infected skin lesions. Fortunately, the widespread immunization of infants using diphtheria toxoid has made this infection extremely rare in developed nations. Diphtheria was the leading cause of death in Canadian children aged 2-14 years only 75 years ago.

The primary pathological lesion of diphtheria is the development of a thick leathery membrane consisting of bacteria, dead cells from the mucous membranes, and fibrin. This membrane, surrounded by a narrow zone of inflammation, firmly adheres to the underlying tissues. Removal of this membrane reveals a bleeding edematous submucosal tissue. The membrane may be localized or extend widely, forming a cast of the pharynx and the tracheobronchial tree. Soft tissue edema of the airways can compromise respiratory function, and death by suffocation from soft tissue edema and aspiration of the membrane is common.

The major virulence of C diphtheriae results from the action of its potent exotoxin, a polypeptide chain produced at the site of the local lesion that passes into the bloodstream. The toxin, which inhibits protein synthesis in mammalian cells, affects all cells in the body but most prominently the heart, producing myocarditis; the kidney, resulting in renal tubular necrosis; and the nervous system, resulting in demyelination. Toxic demyelination occurs in 10% of all infected patients. The neuropathy usually occurs 2-6 weeks after infection, but it may be delayed for up to 3 months after primary infection.




United States

At the turn of the century, in the United States, diphtheria was extremely common, occurring primarily in children, and it was one of the leading causes of death in infants and children. In the 1920s, when data were first gathered in the United States, there were approximately 150,000 cases and 13,000 deaths reported annually. After diphtheria immunization was introduced, the number of cases gradually fell to about 19,000 in 1945. When diphtheria immunization became widespread in the late 1940s, a more rapid decrease in the number of cases and deaths occurred.

From 1970-1979, an average of 196 cases per year were reported. Seventeen outbreaks of 15 or more cases occurred in the United States from 1959-1980, but there have been no outbreaks of multiple cases since 1980. From 1980-1989, the number of individual cases in the United States dropped to 24; 2 cases were fatal, and 18 occurred in persons aged 20 years or older. From 1990-2000, an additional 28 cases were reported, most having occurred in nonimmunized (or inadequately immunized) individuals, particularly those who travel to areas outside the United States where diphtheria is common and those who come into close contact with travelers from such areas.

Since 2000, 5 or fewer cases have been reported annually in the United States. Between 2004 and 2008, no cases of diphtheria were recorded in the United States.


The disease remains endemic in many parts of the third world, although decreases in incidence have occurred worldwide.

Epidemic diphtheria reemerged in the New Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union, beginning in the Russian Federation in 1990 and affecting all 15 NIS by the end of 1994. Approximately 90% of all diphtheria cases reported worldwide during 1990-1995 were reported from the NIS. From 1990-1995, approximately 125,000 cases of diphtheria and 4000 deaths related to the disease were reported in the NIS.

At the time of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991, all NIS relied on supplies of vaccine and antitoxin from Russia, and most lacked the financial resources to procure them from the international market. Mass vaccination campaigns began in 1994, and they have been successful in controlling this epidemic.

In 2003, the World Health Organization reported 50 cases, including 3 in a resettlement camp for displaced persons in Kandahar. A mass vaccination campaign targeting the entire population of the camp (c. 40,000) was launched.

A diphtheria outbreak was reported in May 2010 in Haiti, in one of the settlements housing people displaced by the January 2010 Haitian earthquake. Prior to that, in October, 2009, another diphtheria outbreak in Haiti caused 11 cases and 5 deaths over a 4-week period.

A diphtheria outbreak of 98 cases occurred from February to November 2011 in northeastern Nigeria. There was a 21% fatality rate, primarily in young children. Low rates of immunization, delayed clinical recognition of diphtheria, and absence of treatment with antitoxin and appropriate antibiotics contributed to this epidemic and its severity.


The potent diphtheria exotoxin can cause myocarditis, renal tubular necrosis, or toxin demyelination of the central nervous system.


Children younger than 10 years more commonly are affected.

The epidemic in the New Independent States of the former Soviet Union in 1990-1995 was characterized by a high proportion of cases among adults.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Andrew A Dahl, MD, FACS Assistant Professor of Surgery (Ophthalmology), New York College of Medicine (NYCOM); Director of Residency Ophthalmology Training, The Institute for Family Health and Mid-Hudson Family Practice Residency Program; Staff Ophthalmologist, Telluride Medical Center

Andrew A Dahl, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, American Intraocular Lens Society, American Medical Association, American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, Contact Lens Association of Ophthalmologists, Medical Society of the State of New York, New York State Ophthalmological Society, Outpatient Ophthalmic Surgery Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Louis E Probst, MD, MD Medical Director, TLC Laser Eye Centers

Louis E Probst, MD, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, International Society of Refractive Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Richard W Allinson, MD Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, Texas A&M University Health Science Center; Senior Staff Ophthalmologist, Scott and White Clinic

Richard W Allinson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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