Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that usually affects the tonsils or the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. While it can be treated with medications, it can still be deadly, especially in children. Luckily, it can be prevented by receiving a diphtheria vaccine, which is available to children and adults.

Last Updated: September 24, 2023

The disease is caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which produces a toxin that can make people very sick. It is usually spread through airborne droplets when someone with the bacteria coughs or sneezes. It can also be caught from handling an infected individual’s things, like used tissues or hand towels, or by touching an infected wound. Transmission is increased in crowded areas such as schools, hospitals, and households. After getting the bacteria, a person may have no symptoms for 2–5 days or even longer. The disease may then last for 2–3 weeks or shorter if treated with antibiotics.

Patients who get diphtheria may present with the following symptoms:
• Sore throat and hoarseness;
• Pain when swallowing;
• Swollen glands (enlarged lymph nodes) in the neck;
• Thick, gray membrane covering the throat and tonsils (called a pseudomembrane) — NOTE: It is important to not scrape off the pseudomembrane, as this may cause heavy bleeding.
• Difficulty of breathing or rapid breathing;
• Nasal discharge;
• Fever and chills;
• Feeling weak;
• Open sores or ulcers.

When signs and symptoms consistent with the disease are present in an individual, a doctor may already diagnose that person with diphtheria and treat them appropriately. A doctor may also swab the back of a patient's throat or nose to diagnose diphtheria, but since results from this test may take some time, it is much more important to start treatment immediately.

Persons with diphtheria are given an antitoxin to stop the toxin made by the bacteria from causing more damage. This is particularly important if the airways are affected. Antibiotics are also given to get rid of the bacteria, and receiving antibiotics reduces the time that a person is able to infect other people.

Currently, there are vaccines against diphtheria which can help prevent it from spreading. These vaccines for diphtheria are available for children (as young as 6 weeks old) and adults, and are usually given alongside vaccines for tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough).

Another important way to prevent diphtheria from spreading is to have infected individuals isolate until their antibiotic treatment has been completed. People who will be in contact with these infected individuals must practice proper hand hygiene (especially after every contact) and wear masks to protect themselves from infectious droplets. If someone comes into contact with an infected individual for a significant amount of time, they can also be advised to take antibiotics as a preventive measure.

Last Updated: September 24, 2023