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Health Information Center


  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:




Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that can result in heart, nerve, and kidney damage. It can be deadly if it is not treated right away.


Diphtheria is an infection caused by certain bacteria that make a toxin. The toxin spreads from person-to-person contact. This can happen by:

  • Inhaling bacteria after a person coughs or sneezes
  • Using personal items such as tissues or drinking glasses
  • Having skin contact

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk of diphtheria are:

  • Never being vaccinated for diphtheria or not having a booster dose in the past 10 years
  • Having a weakened immune system


Symptoms of diphtheria may be mild or severe.

They may include:

  • A gray coating in the back of the throat
  • Sore throat or problems swallowing
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck
  • Breathing problems
  • Tiredness
Swollen Glands in the Neck.

Swollen lymph nodehttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=72997299si2073.jpgsi2073.jpgNULLjpgsi2073.jpgNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\si2073.jpgNULL10NULL2008-11-072543907299_96791Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. A nose or throat swab can confirm the diagnosis.


Diphtheria will be treated right away, even if test results are not ready.

Treatment includes:

  • An antitoxin to stop damage to the body
  • Antibiotics to treat the infection
  • Isolation and bed rest


Staying up to date with the diphtheria vaccine can prevent the infection.





  • Diphtheria. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html.
  • Diphtheria. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/diphtheria.
  • Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html.
  • Sharma NC, Efstratiou A, et al. Diphtheria. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2019;5(1):81.
  • Td (tetanus, diphtheria) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/td.html.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html.


  • David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.