Diphtheria is a potentially fatal contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin. Diphtheria is highly contagious. It’s spread by coughs and sneezes, or by contact with someone with diphtheria or items belonging to them, such as bedding or clothing. The infection is usually caught after being in close or prolonged contact with someone who has the condition or is carrying the infection.


Older people and people with a weak immune system are at a heightened risk of developing diphtheria. This condition is very serious and can be fatal.

An estimated 5-10% of people who get the infection will die due to complications such as breathing difficulties, inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) or problems with the nervous system.

A diagnosis of diphtheria can be confirmed by taking a sample of cells from the throat, nose or wound on the skin. This will be examined to see whether the bacteria that cause diphtheria are present.


  • Fever or high temperature (38C/100.4F or above)
  • Cold sweats
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sore throat, cough and hoarseness of the voice
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Foul-smelling, bloodstained nasal discharge
  • Swollen glands (nodes) in the neck
  • Pale skin


Diphtheria must be treated quickly to prevent serious complications developing. If diphtheria is suspected, treatment will begin before any test results are confirmed.

Treatment for diphtheria comprises antibiotics and antitoxin medicine. Anyone suspected of having the condition will be put in isolation when they’re admitted to hospital. Those who develop heart and nervous system complications will need specialist treatment, and may need to be admitted to the intensive care ward.

  • Hospitalization is required!
  • Medications: A diphtheria infection is treated using two types of medication:

Antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria
Antitoxins to neutralize the effects of the toxin produced by the bacteria

Most people who have diphtheria require a 14-day course of antibiotics. After this time, you’ll have tests to find out if all the bacteria have gone. If diphtheria bacteria are still present, you may need to continue taking antibiotics for another 10 days. Once you have completed the treatment, you won’t be infectious to other people. However, you won’t be able to leave the isolation ward until tests show that you’re completely free of infection.

Diphtheria vaccination should be taken after you’ve been treated, due to the fact that having diphtheria once doesn’t always stop you getting the infection again.


  • Physical examination: Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam to check for swollen lymph nodes. They’ll also ask you about your medical history and the symptoms you’ve been having.
  • Throat and nose swabs: Your doctor may believe that you have diphtheria if they see a gray coating on your throat or tonsils. To confirm the diagnosis, they’ll take a sample of the affected tissue and send it to a laboratory for testing. A throat culture may also be taken if your doctor suspects diphtheria of the skin.