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Diphtheria is an extremely rare disease in Australia.

Diphtheria is an extremely rare disease in Australia.
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Diphtheria is an infectious bacterial disease that usually affects the nose and throat. It can be life-threatening but is extremely rare in Australia. Diphtheria can be prevented by vaccinations.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a very contagious disease usually caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It can affect the nose, throat and tonsils, and sometimes the skin.

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

Who needs vaccination?

Anyone who has not been fully immunised and comes into contact with diphtheria during its infectious period can catch the disease.

Diphtheria vaccines are part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule. They are free.

The diphtheria vaccine is given at 2 months, 4 and 6 months of age along with tetanus and whooping cough vaccines, with boosters at 18 months, age 4 and age 10 to 15. It can also be given to older people and to adults travelling overseas who haven’t had the vaccine in the past 10 years.

While everybody should be vaccinated, it is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and older people.

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

How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is spread when a person breathes in droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.

Diphtheria can also be spread by direct contact with an infected person’s wounds or any materials they have soiled.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Diphtheria symptoms usually appear 2 to 5 days after infection.

It can give you a sore throat, breathing difficulties, weakness and fever. It can also cause ulcers on the skin, or make wounds slow to heal.

Diphtheria can also cause nerve paralysis and heart failure.

How is diphtheria treated?

Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics, and in severe cases with antitoxin. Good hygiene stops it spreading.

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Last reviewed: March 2020

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