Diphtheria is a life-threatening bacterial infection that requires immediate care.


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

Risk Factors

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
  • Weakness
  • 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
Swollen lymph node
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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.

Care involves:

  • An antitoxin
  • Antibiotics
  • 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.

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