Certain bacteria cause diphtheria. The infection spreads between people through contact. This can happen by:
- Inhaling the bacteria after a person coughs or sneezes
- Using personal items such as tissues or drinking glasses
- Having contact with their skin
Your risk is higher if you:
- Haven’t had the diphtheria vaccine
- Haven't had a booster dose in the past 10 years
- Have problems with immunity
People without symptoms can spread diphtheria to others. Symptoms usually appear within 2-5 days after infection.
The clearest sign of infection is a gray covering on the back of your throat. This covering can come off and block your airway.
Other common symptoms:
- Sore throat
- Painful swallowing
- High fever (up to 103°F)
- Cough—may have a barking sound
- Swollen lymph glands in the neck
- Breathing problems
- Swallowing problems
- Skin infection
Left untreated, the bacteria can produce a poison that spreads throughout your body. This may cause heart, nerve, and kidney damage.
|Swollen Glands in the Neck|
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Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. Your doctor may suspect diphtheria based on your symptoms and a physical exam. A test swab from your throat can confirm it.
Diphtheria is a medical emergency. Care will start right away, even if your test results aren’t ready.
- An antitoxin
- Isolation and bed rest
A vaccine will prevent the disease. Almost all children should get the series. It will also protect against tetanus and pertussis . If your child missed their vaccines, there are catch-up schedules. Talk to your child’s doctor for specifics.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases https://www.niaid.nih.gov
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca
Public Health Agency of Canada https://www.canada.ca
Diphtheria. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html. Updated November 9, 2015. Accessed May 14, 2018.
Diphtheria. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114762/Diphtheria . Updated January 4, 2018. Accessed May 14, 2018.
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Updated February 6, 2018. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Td (tetanus, diphtheria) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td.html. Updated April 11, 2017. Accessed May 14, 2018.
Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html. Updated October 18, 2016. Accessed May 14, 2018.
- Reviewer: David L. Horn, MD, FACP
- Review Date: 05/2018
- Update Date: 05/14/2018