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Diphtheria is an extremely rare disease in Australia.

Diphtheria is an extremely rare disease in Australia.
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4-minute read

Key facts

  • Diphtheria is very rare in Australia.
  • Diphtheria is an infectious disease that usually affects the nose and throat.
  • Symptoms include sore throat and fever, and in some cases nerve paralysis.
  • Diphtheria can be life threatening.
  • The diphtheria vaccination stops you getting sick and is free of charge.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infectious disease. It is usually caused by the bacteria (germ) Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It can affect your nose, throat and tonsils, and sometimes your skin. Diphtheria can also damage your heart and in bad cases can damage your nerves and kidneys.

When someone catches diphtheria, the bacteria can release a toxin (poison) into the body. This toxin can affect your airways and cause a membrane to grow across your windpipe. This makes breathing difficult. If the membrane blocks your windpipe, it can lead to suffocation and death.

Diphtheria can be life-threatening, but due to immunisations it has virtually disappeared in Australia.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Diphtheria can give you:

Diphtheria causes grey and white patches on your tonsils and over the back of your throat (pharynx). These can form a membrane and make it difficult to breathe. It also often causes the glands in your neck to swell.

In one in 4 people the toxin causes inflammation of the heart muscle. This can lead to heart failure.

In worse cases the toxin can damage the nerves (causing paralysis) and kidneys.

A less serious form of the disease is skin sores. This causes ulcers on your skin, and makes wounds slow to heal.

Diphtheria symptoms usually appear 2 to 5 days after infection.

What causes diphtheria?

Diphtheria is usually caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It can also be caused by several other strains of corynebacterium including Corynebacterium ulcerans.

How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is spread by respiratory droplets. These are the small droplets that come out of your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they can spread diphtheria. You can also catch diphtheria if you touch things an infected person has coughed or sneezed on.

Touching an infected person’s wounds or any materials they have soiled will also spread diphtheria.

Practising good hygiene can help to stop diphtheria from spreading.

You can catch diphtheria if you are not fully vaccinated and meet someone with diphtheria.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you:

  • have not been fully immunised against diphtheria
  • have symptoms

How is diphtheria diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose diphtheria by:

  • examining your throat for a grey or green membrane
  • swabbing your throat or your wound
  • asking you about other symptoms such as fever, breathing or swallowing problems
  • asking if you’ve been close to someone who has diphtheria

Diphtheria is a notifiable disease. This means that your doctor must notify government health authorities if you have diphtheria.

How is diphtheria treated?

Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics and diphtheria anti-toxin. This helps to kill the bacteria and stop toxin production.

Some people may need surgery to remove the grey or green membrane that can form in your throat.

You may also need other medicines to treat complications from diphtheria such as heart problems.

Even with treatment, people sometimes die from diphtheria.

Isolating people with diphtheria may help stop the disease spreading.

Can diphtheria be prevented?

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent diphtheria.

Diphtheria vaccines are part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule. They are safe, work well, and are free.

Diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines are given together. This vaccine is called DTP.

Infants get doses at:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months

Children get 3 booster shots at:

  • 18 months
  • 4 years
  • 12 to 13 years

People in the groups below should also get the diphtheria vaccination:

  • Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people
  • older people
  • people travelling overseas who haven't had the vaccination in the past 10 years

If you are not fully immunised and meet someone with diphtheria you can catch the disease.

To find out more about diphtheria immunisation, talk to your doctor.

Complications of diphtheria

The respiratory form of diphtheria infection can also cause swelling of the neck (bull neck).

Diphtheria can also cause long-term:

  • heart complications
  • neurological complications
  • kidney complications

Resources and support

To learn more about the National Immunisation Program Schedule visit the website.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222. You can talk with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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