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Diphtheria

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.

When childhood diphtheria vaccinations are given

The vaccines are given at:

Travel vaccination

The best way to avoid diphtheria while travelling is to be fully vaccinated against it.

If you're travelling to a part of the world where diphtheria is widespread, you may need a booster vaccination if you were last vaccinated against it more than 10 years ago.

Diphtheria is found in many areas, including:

Places considered to be high risk can change over time. For up-to-date information about the area you're visiting, check the TravelHealthPro country guides.

Information:

For foreign travel, you may be able to get a combined vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and polio free on the NHS. Ask at your GP surgery.

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:

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

Urgent advice: 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 have recently returned from somewhere where the infection is widespread
  • you have 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:

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.