Diphtheria is a highly contagious, life-threatening bacterial disease that mainly affects the tonsils, throat, nose, and skin. It is caused by a bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
Symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat, mild fever and swelling in the neck, and painful, swollen red sores. The symptoms commonly begin 2 to 5 days after exposure to the bacteria, but they can start in 1 to 6 days.
Anyone who is not immunized against diphtheria can get the disease. Diphtheria is spread to others through close or direct contact with the body fluids from an infected person. It may also be spread by contact with personal items such as blankets or clothing that were used by a person with diphtheria.
Persons with diphtheria who do not get treatment are usually contagious for less than 2 weeks. Although rare, some people may spread the bacteria for 6 months or more. When treated with medicine, the contagious period can be reduced to less than 4 days.
A doctor can prescribe medicines to treat diphtheria. If diphtheria is not treated, serious problems such as paralysis, heart failure, and blood disorders may occur.
The best way to keep from getting diphtheria is to make sure that you get immunized. Diphtheria vaccine is usually given in a shot together with tetanus and pertussis vaccines, and is known as DTaP vaccine. A child should have had four DTaP shots by 18 months of age, with a booster shot at 4 to 6 years of age. DT does not contain pertussis and is used as a substitute for children who cannot tolerate the pertussis vaccine. Tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine is administered to people 7 years and older and should be given every 10 years. The newly licensed Tdap vaccine is similar to Td, but also contains protection against pertussis. It can be used in place of one Td booster in adolescents and adults up to age 64.
Vaccine Information Statements:
Last reviewed October 2017