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, 4 and 6 months of age along with tetanus and whooping cough vaccines. Booster doses of diphtheria vaccine are given at age 4 and age 10–15. They can also be given to older people.
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.
Diphtheria symptoms usually appear 2 to 5 days after infection.
Diphtheria can also cause nerve paralysis and heart failure.
Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics, and in severe cases with antitoxin. Good hygiene stops it spreading.
Last reviewed: December 2015