What is Diphtheria ?

Diphtheria is a vaccine-preventable disease that is caused by infection with the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheria. It is transmitted person to person through respiratory droplets (usually from coughing and sneezing) and through close physical contact.

Diphtheria usually affects the mucous membrane of the upper respiratory tract (nose, tonsils, pharynx, and larynx), the skin, and rarely, other mucous membranes in the body. Even when properly treated, between 5 to 10 percent of diphtheria patients die. When the disease goes untreated, this rate is even higher. 

How do you get Diphtheria ?

Diphtheria is a contagious disease that spreads from person to person by breathing in nasal secretions in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Direct contact with the skin sores of persons with cutaneous (skin) diphtheria or with articles or objects contaminated with discharges from the lungs or skin can lead to acquiring the infection. The organisms can survive in dust and clothing for up to 6 months.

Susceptibility and Resistance

Diphtheria vaccination produces prolonged, but not lifelong immunity. Immunity wanes with increasing age. Recovering from the disease may induce lifelong immunity, but this is not always the case.

Incubation Period

The incubation period for Diphtheria is 1-10 days.

What are the Symptoms?

The general symptoms of respiratory diphtheria include sore throat, fever, malaise, difficulty breathing and/or swallowing, and a grey pseudomembrane forming over the tonsils and/or nasopharynx (which can extend into the larynx and trachea, causing obstruction of the airway and suffocation). Severe infection can cause swelling of the neck and enlarged neck lymph nodes, leading to a “bull-neck” appearance. Cutaneous (skin) diphtheria can cause a skin lesion covered by a grey-brown membrane.

Complications of diphtheria include: diphtheric myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), heart rhythm disturbances, infection of the heart valves, congestive heart failure, neurological problems such as paralysis of the soft palate, vision problems, and muscle weakness, and infections (lung, blood or bone infections).

Preventative Measures

Diphtheria infections can be prevented through vaccination.


The standard treatment for diphtheria is the immediate administration of diphtheria antitoxin and antibiotics. Any delay in treatment is associated with increased risk for complications and death. After receiving antibiotic treatment, the patient usually becomes non-infectious within 24 hours. The diphtheria antitoxin is not recommended for diphtheria infections that do not show symptoms and is usually of no use in cutaneous (skin) diphtheria. Symptomatic treatment, such as intubation (inserting a breathing tube), may also be necessary.



Where Does It Commonly Occur?

La diphtérie peut se produire presque n'importe où dans le monde, mais les pays avec le plus de risque sont:

Afrique – Algérie, Angola, Egypte, Niger, Nigéria, Soudan et les pays subsahariens

Amériques – Bolivie, Brésil, Colombie, République dominicaine, Équateur

Asie/Pacifique du Sud – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhoutan, Birmanie (Myanmar), Cambodge, Chine, Inde, Indonésie, Laos, Malaisie, Mongolie, Népal, Pakistan, Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée, Philippines, Thaïlande et Vietnam

Moyen Orient - Iran, Irak, Arabie saoudite, Syrie, Turquie et Yémen

Europe – Albanie, Russie et les pays de l'ex-Union soviétique