Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Diphtheria

Definition

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

Causes  ^

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

Symptoms  ^

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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Diagnosis  ^

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.

Treatment  ^

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

Prevention  ^

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.

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
https://www.cdc.gov

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
https://www.niaid.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

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:http://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.

Last reviewed May 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 5/14/2018