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Diphtheria is a childhood illness caused by a bacterium, Corynebacterium diphtheria, that are spread through coughing, sneezing and contaminated objects.

It usually infects the nose and throat. The infection can spread to your blood stream and other organs, causing significant damage.

Symptoms may not appear, but when they do it is within two to five days after contact with the bacteria and includes:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Painful swallowing
  • Swelling of the neck
  • White or gray membrane in the nose, mouth or throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Bloody, watery nasal drainage
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Bluish skin color
  • Cough

Recovery from this illness is slow. Complications can include airway obstruction, toxicity to the heart or nervous system, and death.


Who should receive this vaccine?

  • Adults need a booster every 10 years.
  • All children. Check with your physician regarding boosters.

The diphtheria booster (for adults) is included in the new Tdap vaccine which includes tetanus and pertussis.

Due to vaccination, there has not been a case of diptheria in the United States since 2003.


This information has been approved by Christopher A Czaja, MD (February 2013).