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Diphtheria is a life-threatening infection that spreads easily. The infection most commonly attacks the tonsils, throat, and nose.

Diphtheria is a medical emergency that requires immediate care from your doctor. Not everyone who gets diphtheria shows signs of illness, though they may be able to infect others. The sooner it is treated, the better the outcome will be.

Despite availability of vaccines for prevention of diphtheria, cases of diphtheria are on the rise.


Diphtheria is caused specific bacteria. The infection spreads from person to person through contact with:

  • Droplets of moisture that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person and breathed in by a non-infected person
  • Personal items, such as tissues or drinking glasses, that have been used by an infected person
  • Skin that is infected with diphtheria

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of getting diphtheria include:

  • Having never been immunized against diphtheria
  • Not having had a booster dose in the past ten years
  • Having a compromised immune system


Signs and symptoms of diphtheria usually begin 2 to 5 days after a person is infected. The most obvious sign of diphtheria is a gray covering on the back of the throat. The covering can detach and block the airway. If left untreated, the bacteria can produce a poison that spreads through the body causing damage to the heart, nerves, and kidneys.

Symptoms include:

  • Sore throat and painful swallowing
  • Fever up to 103°F
  • Gray covering on the back of the throat
  • Cough, possibly a barking cough
  • Swollen glands in the neck
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weakness
  • Skin infection
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph node
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Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diphtheria will be suspected if the throat and tonsils are covered with a gray membrane.

Your doctor may need to test to confirm the diagnosis. This can be done by collecting a swab for culture or a tissue sample.


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. If your doctor suspects diphtheria, your treatment will start right away, even before the lab results are returned. Treatment options include the following:

  • Antitoxin injection
  • Antibiotics
  • Isolation and bedrest


The vaccine for diphtheria is safe and is effective at preventing the disease. All children with few exceptions should receive the DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria, tetanus , and pertussis . A single dose of Tdap vaccine is recommended for children aged 11 years or older, even if they did not receive the DTaP. A booster should be administered every 10 years after, or after exposure to tetanus if necessary.

If you or your child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to their doctor. There are catch-up schedules available.

Revision Information

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


  • HealthLinkBC


  • Caring for Kids

    The Canadian Paediatric Society


  • Diphtheria. Updated June 9, 2010. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Accessed June 19, 2014.

  • Diphtheria. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Presentable Diseases. Centers for Disease Control website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html. Updated May 7, 2012. Accessed June 19, 2014.

  • Immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years—United States, 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/child-adolescent.html. Updated May 14, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2014.

  • Td (tetanus, diphtheria) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td.html. Updated February 4, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2014.

  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html. Updated June 18, 2013. Accessed June 19, 2014.