Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease that can affect the nose, throat and skin. It is mainly spread through infected faeces and if you are in close contact with someone who has the disease. Diphtheria symptoms include swollen glands, breathing difficulties and painful blisters, and quick treatment of the disease is necessary.

5-10% of cases
Primary regions
Central and South East Asia, South Pacific, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Caribbean
People at highest risk
Unvaccinated, young children

01. Causes of diphtheria

Diphtheria is caused by bacteria, and it is a highly infectious disease that can be life threatening.

Diphtheria causes a powerful toxin to build up in the mouth, nose and throat. If left untreated, it can lead to choking.

Diphtheria is contagious. It is spread by faeces, coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected with the disease.

You can also get diphtheria if you are sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding with an infected person. You should therefore avoid this, if possible.

02. Risk areas

Due to routine vaccination programmes, diphtheria is rare in the UK. But diphtheria is still a risk for unvaccinated travellers, who visit countries where the uptake of vaccines against the disease is low.

Travellers are most at risk of diphtheria when visiting:

  • Central Asia

  • Southeast Asia

  • the South Pacific

  • the Middle East

  • Eastern Europe

  • the Caribbean

Remember that outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world if someone infected with diphtheria travels to a different country and infects others. This means that the diphtheria risk changes.

Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of diphtheria through the search bar below.

03. Symptoms of diphtheria

Diphtheria symptoms usually start one to five days after becoming infected. This is known as the diphtheria incubation period.

It is important to be able to identify diphtheria symptoms, as the disease needs to be treated quickly at the hospital to help prevent serious complications, such as breathing difficulties or heart problems.

Diphtheria symptoms can include:

  • a thick greyish or white coating at the back of the throat

  • high temperature

  • feeling sick

  • sore throat

  • headache

  • swollen glands in your neck

  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

  • pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands

  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore skin

Diphtheria can become serious, causing heart damage and multi-organ failure even after you have recovered. So it is important you seek medical advice if you are experiencing any diphtheria symptoms, even if they appear to be mild.

04. Diagnosis of diphtheria

Diphtheria can be diagnosed by your own doctor, who will do a health checkup.

You will be asked about the symptoms you are experiencing, and the doctor will also check if you have swollen glands.

If the doctor suspects that you have diphtheria, they may take samples of your throat that will be tested in the laboratory, so the diagnosis can be confirmed.

05. Treatment of diphtheria

The diphtheria treatment usually lasts one to three weeks. You may need to stay in hospital and receive medicines intravenously through a tube attached to your vein, known as an IV. Skin ulcers may take longer to heal and they may leave scars.

Diphtheria treatment can include:

  • antibiotics and medicines to kill the diphtheria bacteria

  • thorough cleaning of any infected wounds

  • assisted breathing to help with airway obstructions

People who have been in contact with an infected person, but are not yet showing diphtheria symptoms, may need to take antibiotics to help stop an infection from occurring.

06. Prevention of diphtheria

Diphtheria prevention includes many different things, including getting vaccinated.

If you need to get vaccinated for diptheria, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure about whether you need to get vaccinated, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses, who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective diphtheria prevention in risk areas, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need to get vaccinated

  • learn about diphtheria symptoms so you can spot signs

  • avoid contact with anyone infected with diphtheria

  • ensure good personal hygiene

  • wash hands with soap and water or alcohol hand gel

  • avoid hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth

  • use disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing

Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019