Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially fatal infection that can affect the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin. It’s rare in the UK but there’s a small risk of catching it while travelling in some parts of the world.

Diphtheria vaccination

Diphtheria is rare in the UK because babies and children are routinely vaccinated against it.

How diphtheria is spread

Diphtheria is highly contagious. It’s spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who’s infected.

You can also get it by sharing items – such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding – with an infected person.

Symptoms of diphtheria

Symptoms usually start 2 to 5 days after becoming infected.

The main symptoms of diphtheria are:

  • a thick grey-white coating at the back of your throat
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
  • feeling sick
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • swollen glands in your neck
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

If it affects your skin (cutaneous diphtheria), it can cause:

  • pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands
  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin

Get urgent medical help if you have symptoms of diphtheria and:

  • you’re in an area of the world where the infection is widespread
  • you’ve recently returned from somewhere where the infection is widespread
  • you’ve been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria

Diphtheria needs to be treated quickly in hospital to help prevent serious complications, such as breathing difficulties or heart problems.

Treatments for diphtheria

The main treatments are:

  • antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria
  • medicines that stop the effects of the harmful substances (toxins) produced by the bacteria
  • thoroughly cleaning any infected wounds if you have diphtheria affecting your skin

Treatment usually lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Any skin ulcers usually heal within 2 to 3 months but may leave a scar.

People who have been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria may also need to take antibiotics or may be given a dose of the diphtheria vaccination.