What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infection usually of the upper airways or sometimes of the skin. In the upper airways it causes a very thin barrier known as a membrane which grows across the windpipe and makes it hard to breathe.

This can block the windpipe completely, leading to suffocation and death. Diphtheria can also damage the heart and the nervous system.

Diphtheria is caused by a type of bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacteria make a toxin that causes the disease.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Symptoms usually start about two to five days after catching diphtheria.

Symptoms can include:

  • sore throat
  • swallowing problems
  • mild fever
  • breathing problems, which may be severe
  • a grey or green membrane at the back of the throat.

Who is at risk from diphtheria?

Diphtheria can affect people at any age.

People who have not been immunised against diphtheria have the highest risk of serious disease.

How do you get diphtheria?

Diphtheria can spread:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes it in
  • by direct contact with a person’s wound (if they have a diphtheria infection of the skin)
  • when you touch things on which an infected person has coughed or sneezed.

How do you prevent diphtheria?

Vaccination is the best protection against diphtheria.

Diphtheria vaccines help protect you from getting infected and prevent serious disease. In Australia all tetanus vaccines are also vaccines against diphtheria. Many older people in Australia have not had enough diphtheria vaccines to stay protected.

In the early 1900s, diphtheria caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease.

Since diphtheria vaccines were introduced, the disease has almost completely disappeared in Australia. Vaccinating against diphtheria is still important because people can bring the disease into Australia from overseas.

No vaccinated person has died from diphtheria in Australia in more than 20 years.

For more information on diphtheria immunisation, see Diphtheria immunisation service.

If you have diphtheria, you can help stop the disease spreading by:

  • staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection (your doctor will tell you when you’re no longer infectious)
  • washing your hands often
  • covering your coughs and sneezes.

How do you know if you have diphtheria?

If you think you or one of your family members has diphtheria, see your doctor.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you’ve been in contact with someone who has diphtheria. If your doctor thinks you have diphtheria, they can swab your throat (or your wound if you have a skin infection) to test for the bacteria.

How do you get treated for diphtheria?

Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics and diphtheria anti-toxin. You may also need other medicines to help with the complications from diphtheria, such as heart problems. Some people may need surgery to remove the grey or green membrane that can form in the throat. People with diphtheria may be isolated to prevent the disease spreading. Some people with diphtheria may die even with treatment.

More information

Contacts

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
4 June 2018