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Disease Information / Diphtheria


What is it

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the respiratory tract, although it can also infect the skin.It was a common cause of death in children up until the 1940s but has now almost disappeared in Australia due to immunisation. However, it is important to continue vaccinating children against diphtheria because there is a risk the infection can be brought in by people who have travelled to, or come from, developing nations. 1,2,3

Who is at risk and what are the symptoms

Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated is at risk of diphtheria if they come into contact with the bacteria. Symptoms of diphtheria appear in the respiratory tract two to five days after infection, often involving breathing problems, runny nose, fever, severe sore throat, general feeling of unwell, swollen lymph nodes and problems swallowing.Skin can also become infected and the toxin can cause nerve and heart damage.1,3

How is it spread

Most frequently, diphtheria is spread through the air from person to person by coughing or sneezing.2

How is it prevented

Diphtheria is vaccine preventable and recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation under the National Immunisation Schedule. Children should be vaccinated at two, four and six months of age, with a booster at 18 months and later at four years. This should be followed by another booster at 10-15 years.1 Speak to your doctor for further information.

How is it diagnosed and treated

Initially, a doctor can diagnose suspected diphtheria based on a clinical examination of the throat. In order to confirm diagnosis, throat swabs must be tested in a laboratory. The infection is then treated with the administration of diphtheria antitoxins and antibiotics. All cases of diphtheria must be treated as an emergency to reduce the risk of complications or death.2,3

Where to get help

Symptoms similar to a diphtheria infection should be referred to a General Practitioner immediately. For further information on prevention and management of diphtheria, contact your health care professional.


  1. Immunise Australia Program:
  2. 2NSW Health:
  3. factsheet: .