Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat and sometimes the skin. It is rare in Europe as children are generally vaccinated against it, but there is a risk of catching it when travelling in some parts of the world. Symptoms generally include a high temperature of +38 degrees C, a sore throat and breathing difficulties.

Diphtheria is spread through coughs and sneezes, or by close contact with someone who’s infected. It can also be got by sharing personal items such as clothing or crockery.

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  • a thick grey-white coating at the back of your throat
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • foul-smelling, bloodstained nasal discharge
  • swollen glands (nodes) in the neck
  • feeling sick
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • pus filled blisters on legs, arms and hands
  • ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin.


Patients are immediately referred to hospital and admitted to an isolation ward to prevent the disease from spreading.

If the grey-white membrane is making it difficult for you to breathe, some or all of it will be removed.

A diphtheria infection is treated using two types of medication:

  • antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria
  • antitoxins to neutralise the effects of the toxin produced by the bacteria

Most people who have diphtheria require a 14-day course of antibiotics. After this time, you’ll have tests to find out if all the bacteria have gone. If diphtheria bacteria are still present, you may need to continue taking antibiotics for another 10 days. Your recommended dose will vary depending on how severe your condition is and how long you’ve had diphtheria.

Once you have completed the treatment, you won’t be infectious to other people. However, you won’t be able to leave the isolation ward until tests show that you’re completely free of infection.

You may require a booster if travelling to a part of the world where diphtheria is widespread, if your last vaccination was in excess of ten years ago.

Diphtheria is found in many areas, including:

  • Asia
  • the South Pacific
  • the Middle East
  • eastern Europe
  • the Caribbean

Check for outbreaks as high risk areas change from time to time.