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What is diphtheria?

Page last updated 09 July 2018

Diphtheria is a bacterial disease that causes severe inflammation of the nose, throat and windpipe. 

The bacteria produce a toxin (poison) that attacks the skin at the back of the throat. The throat becomes inflamed and rapidly forms an abnormal membrane (barrier) over the back of the throat, which can prevent swallowing and make breathing difficult. This alone can lead to suffocation. 

The toxin can also spread throughout the bloodstream and affect other organs, including the heart and kidneys, as well as the nervous system. These complications can also be fatal. 

Vaccination is an effective way to prevent diphtheria. The disease is extremely rare in Australia due to ongoing routine vaccination programs.

Sources & Citations

  1. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. 4.2 Diphtheria. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  2. Australian Government. Department of Health. Australia’s notifiable disease status, 2014: Annual report of the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (main page). Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  3. Victorian Government. Better Health Channel. Diphtheria. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  4. Centers for Disease Control. Diphtheria. Symptoms. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).

SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0134a - Date of preparation May 2018