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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 6, 2023.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. The infection spreads quickly from person to person through sneezing or coughing. It can also be passed if a person uses a drinking glass or other item used by an infected person. The bacteria that cause diphtheria get into your nose, throat, and airway and produce a toxin. The toxin can block these passages or cause pneumonia. The toxin can spread through your bloodstream and cause life-threatening damage to your heart or kidneys. It can also cause nerve damage that leads to paralysis.

What are the signs and symptoms of diphtheria?

Any of the following can develop 2 to 5 days after you are infected:

  • Sore throat, swollen neck glands, a cough, or hoarseness
  • A thick, gray or black coating in your nose, throat, and airway
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing from the coating that forms in your airway
  • Weakness, fatigue, or a fever
  • Discharge from your nose that may contain blood or smell foul
  • A skin ulcer covered with a gray membrane that does not heal
  • Nausea and vomiting

How is diphtheria diagnosed and treated?

Your healthcare provider will look in your nose and throat. He or she may see the diphtheria coating, but it may not be present. Your provider will take samples from your nose and throat to be tested. A diphtheria infection is treated in the hospital. Medicines to treat diphtheria include an antitoxin to stop the diphtheria toxin, and an antibiotic to kill the bacteria that cause diphtheria. Your healthcare provider may also give you a dose of the diphtheria vaccine.

What can I do to prevent the spread of diphtheria?

  • Protect others from diphtheria. If you are infected, you may infect others for up to 4 weeks. Take precautions, even if you do not have symptoms of diphtheria. Do not let anyone use your drinking cup. Everyone who lives with you will need to see his or her healthcare provider. The provider will do a throat swab to check for infection. The provider will also ask about the person's vaccine history. A booster shot may be given. Antibiotics may also be given, even if the person does not have symptoms.
  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands several times each day. Wash after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, and before you prepare or eat food. Use soap and water every time. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Wash the front and back of your hands, and in between your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the fingernails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first.
  • Cover a sneeze or cough. Use a tissue that covers your mouth and nose. Throw the tissue away in a trash can right away. Use the bend of your arm if a tissue is not available. Wash your hands well with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer.
  • Clean surfaces often. Clean doorknobs, countertops, cell phones, and other surfaces that are touched often. Use a disinfecting wipe, a single-use sponge, or a cloth you can wash and reuse. Use disinfecting cleaners if you do not have wipes. You can create a disinfecting cleaner by mixing 1 part bleach with 10 parts water.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccines. A diphtheria infection may not make you immune from another infection. The DTaP, Tdap, and Td vaccines help protect against diphtheria. Your provider can recommend the vaccines that are right for you based on your age and health. Pregnant women should get 1 dose of Tdap with each pregnancy, during weeks 27 to 36.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have new or worsening trouble breathing or swallowing.
  • Your heartbeat is very fast or not regular.
  • You need a diphtheria booster shot.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.