What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria, an acute disease of the nose, throat, tonsils or skin, is caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae.

Who gets diphtheria?

Diphtheria is uncommon in the United States. From 1980 through 1993, only 40 cases were reported nationwide. Most cases occurred in people who have never been fully immunized against diphtheria or who have not received a booster dose within 10 years.

How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is spread from person-to-person by contact with mucus, saliva or the skin lesions of an infected person.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

There are two types of diphtheria. One type involves the nose, throat and tonsils. Early symptoms include a sore throat, mild fever and swollen lymph nodes located in the neck. Often a membrane develops on the throat, tonsils or inside the nostrils. Although in some patients diphtheria is a mild illness, in others it can be very serious; 5 - 10% of cases are fatal.

The second type of diphtheria involves the skin. People with diphtheria skin infections typically develop a scaly rash or skin ulcers.

How soon do symptoms appear?

Symptoms usually appear two to five days after exposure to an infected person.

When and for how long is a person able to spread diphtheria?

Most people who do not receive antibiotics are contagious for about 2 weeks. With proper antibiotics, people are contagious for only 2-4 days.

Does past infection with diphtheria make a person immune?

Not always. Infection with diphtheria does not guarantee a lasting immunity.

Is there a vaccine for diphtheria?

Yes. A combination vaccine to protect against three diseases - diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis - should be given at 2, 4, 6 and 15 months of age, and at 4 years of age. A combination vaccine against diphtheria and tetanus, called "Td" should be given every 10 years to maintain immunity.

What is the treatment for diphtheria?

Diphtheria antitoxin and certain antibiotics, such as penicillin and erythromycin, can be used to treat diphtheria.

What can be the effect of not being treated for diphtheria?

In severe cases, serious complications, such as heart problems or paralysis of the muscles used for breathing, or death can occur. Also, untreated people are more likely to spread the infection to others.

How can diphtheria be prevented?

The single most effective control measure is maintaining the highest possible vaccination levels in the community.

For more information on where your child can be vaccinated, call 311.

Last Updated: December 6, 2012