Alberta Health Services
Diphtheria is a nose and throat infection caused by bacteria. It can cause trouble breathing or swallowing, heart failure, and paralysis (not being able to move all or part of your body).
Antibiotics (medicines that fight bacteria) can be used to treat diphtheria infections. Even with treatment, up to 1 out of 10 people who get diphtheria will die.
In children under 5 years and adults older than 40 years, 2 to 4 out of 10 people who get diphtheria can die.
People who travel to countries where there is a risk of diphtheria and have not had all their diphtheria vaccines are at the highest risk.
Diphtheria is particularly serious for unimmunized babies and children. Before vaccines, diphtheria was the most common cause of death in Canadian children ages 1 to 5.
Diphtheria is spread by coughing, sneezing, or having close contact with someone who has diphtheria.
Symptoms usually start 2 to 5 days after contact with the bacteria. Most people will have a sore throat, fever and chills, and swelling of the throat that can cause trouble swallowing. Symptoms also include not feeling hungry and feeling generally unwell. A thick grey membrane will also develop at the back of the nose, mouth, or throat.
These symptoms can get worse and lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart problems, coma, and even death.
Diphtheria can be prevented by getting a vaccine. Common vaccines that protect against diphtheria are:
The type of diphtheria vaccine you get depends on your age and if you need protection from other diseases.
The Td vaccine protects against tetanus and diphtheria. Td vaccine is no longer available in Alberta. It used to be given to adults who needed this protection because they didn't have their childhood immunizations or because they needed an extra (booster) dose. The dTap vaccine is now given for this.
Antitoxins are passive immunization agents. This means they’re used to treat some infections, but they don’t give long-term protection like vaccines. You may get diphtheria antitoxin if your doctor decides you need treatment for diphtheria.
For long-term protection, you need a vaccine.
Learn more about diphtheria antitoxin.