Respiratory diphtheria is spread typically by coughing and sneezing and close contact with infected people. There is a safe and effective vaccine.
The bacterium can infect the nose and throat and release a toxin. The main symptoms are sore throat, difficulty and/or pain on swallowing, husky voice, fever, cough and headache. A grey/yellow membrane of dead tissue may develop over the tonsils and throat which can lead to airway obstruction and breathing difficulties. Lymph glands become swollen, prominent and tender, producing a ‘bull neck’. The toxin produced may affect other organs and it can be fatal.
In countries where hygiene is poor, cutaneous diphtheria is the main source of infection causing painful, non-healing skin ulcers which often become infected with other bacteria. Severe illness is unusual. This type of diphtheria is spread by contact with discharge from contagious skin lesions.
Diphtheria is still a risk for unvaccinated travellers to countries where the uptake of diphtheria containing vaccines is low.
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection. Travellers should ensure they are up to date with their routine vaccines according to the NHS vaccination schedule.
Some types of diphtheria bacteria can spread from animals to humans. Travellers should be advised not to consume raw dairy products, to avoid close contact with cattle/farm animals and to follow good personal hygiene rules to minimise risk of infection.
Specific country diphtheria vaccine recommendations are not routinely provided on TravelHealthPro country pages.
In the UK immunisation programme, a minimum of five diphtheria-containing vaccines should be offered, at appropriate intervals, to all individuals. The primary UK vaccination course consists of three doses of diphtheria-toxoid containing vaccine at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age. A first booster should be administered at around 3 years and 4 months and a second booster between 13 to 18 years of age.