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Diphtheria is an acute bacterial disease that usually affects the tonsils, throat, nose, and/or skin. The disease is passed from person to person by droplet transmission, usually by breathing in bacteria after an infected person has coughed, sneezed, or even laughed. It can also be spread by handling used tissues or by drinking from a glass used by an infected person. Diphtheria can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and sometimes death.


Signs and symptoms may vary from mild to severe. They usually start two to five days after exposure. Symptoms often come on fairly gradually, beginning with a sore throat and fever. In its early stages, diphtheria may be mistaken for a severe sore throat. Other symptoms include a low-grade fever and enlarged lymph nodes (swollen glands) located in the neck. Diphtheria can cause skin lesions that may be painful, red, and swollen. People carrying diphtheria germs are contagious for up to four weeks without antibiotics, even if they themselves do not develop symptoms.


There is a vaccine to prevent diphtheria. Most people receive their first dose as children in the form of a combined vaccine called DTaP (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis). Health officials now recommend that adults and adolescents receive a Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis) booster vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). This recommendation is instead of the previously recommended Td (tetanus-diphtheria) booster.

Facts about Diphtheria

  • Diphtheria is transmitted to others through close contact with discharges from an infected person’s nose, throat, eyes, and/or skin lesions.
  • Diphtheria can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and sometimes death.
  • Nearly one out of every 10 people who get diphtheria will die from it.
  • Most cases of diphtheria occur among unvaccinated or inadequately vaccinated people.
  • Recovery from diphtheria is not always followed by lasting immunity, so even those persons who have survived the disease need to be immunized.
  • Although no longer a very common disease in the US, diphtheria remains a large problem in other countries and can pose a serious threat to people in the US who may not be fully immunized and who travel to other countries, or have contact with people coming to the US from other parts of the world.