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Diphtheria Fact Sheet

Girl with diptheriaDiphtheria is a disease caused by a bacteria (Corynebacterium diphtheria) and it is passed from one person to another by coughing or sneezing. It attacks the throat and makes a thick grey coating grow that makes it hard to swallow or breathe. If diphtheria isn’t treated the bacteria will eventually make a poison that affects the nervous system and heart. When this happens it can make breathing stop and cause death.

‘Rosa breathed in some diphtheria germs which settled in her throat and made it sore. Her neck swelled. Her breathing became noisy and difficult. Then her breathing stopped and she died.’

Signs and symptoms

First symptoms:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • swollen glands (little lumps in your neck that are painful)

Later symptoms:

  • difficulties in breathing and swallowing
  • vomiting


Diphtheria treatment in hospital includes:

  • a special medicine to neutralise the poison produced by the bacteria
  • medicines called antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria

It is a very serious disease and even with treatment, about 1 in 10 people who get diphtheria will die. If you have diphtheria you have to be kept away from everyone, until you aren’t infectious any more – if you are being treated with antibiotics this is for two days after being given the medicine.


The diphtheria immunisation is given to children at the same time as their immunisations for tetanus and pertussis. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that this combined immunisation for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) be given to babies at six weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks.  However, because this may not confer lifelong immunity, booster shots of the vaccine are recommended every 10 years.

Even if someone has had the disease they may not develop immunity against the poison the bacteria makes and so everyone should also be immunised against diphtheria.


World Health Organization
The WHO health topic pages on Diphtheria has information on the disease and its prevention.

Centres for Disease Control (CDC)
There is useful information on diphtheria immunisation as well as the signs and symptoms of the disease on the CDC website.

There is a section just for children called BAM! and this includes a fact sheet on Diphtheria.