Diphtheria is a life-threatening infection. It can cause heart, nerve, and kidney damage. It needs to be treated right away.
This illness is caused by certain bacteria. It spreads from person-to-person contact. This can happen by:
- Inhaling bacteria after a person coughs or sneezes
- Using personal items such as tissues or drinking glasses
- Having skin contact
Things that raise the risk are:
- Not having had:
- A diphtheria vaccine, or
- A booster dose in the past 10 years
- Having a weak immune system
Symptoms of diphtheria may be mild or severe.
They may include:
- A gray coating in the back of the throat
- Sore throat or problems swallowing
- Swollen lymph glands in the neck
- Breathing problems
Swollen Glands in the Neck
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The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. A nose or throat swab can confirm the diagnosis.
Diphtheria will be treated right away, even if test results are not ready.
- An antitoxin to stop damage to the body
- Antibiotics to treat the infection
- Isolation and bed rest
A vaccine will prevent the disease.
Diphtheria. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Diphtheria. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/diphtheria. Accessed Februsary 2, 2021.
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Sharma NC, Efstratiou A, et al. Diphtheria. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2019;5(1):81.
Td (tetanus, diphtheria) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td.html. Accessed February 2, 2021.
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. Accessed February 2, 2021.
Last reviewed September 2020 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 2/2/2021