Diphtheria is a potentially fatal contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin.

Diphtheria is highly contagious. It’s spread by coughs and sneezes, or by contact with someone with diphtheria or items belonging to them, such as bedding or clothing.

The infection is usually caught after being in close or prolonged contact with someone who has the condition or is carrying the infection. For example, you may catch diphtheria from someone you live with.

However, diphtheria is very rare in England because most people have been vaccinated against it. It tends to be a problem in parts of the world where fewer people are vaccinated, such as Africa, South Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Symptoms

The symptoms of diphtheria include:

  • a thick grey-white coating at the back of the throat

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above

  • sore throat

  • breathing difficulties

Older people and people with a weakened immune system are more at risk of the effects of diphtheria. The most serious cases can be fatal.

An estimated 5-10% of people who get the infection will die from complications of diphtheria, such as breathing difficulties, inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) or problems with the nervous system.

Vaccination

All children should be vaccinated against diphtheria as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule.

Adults should consider having a booster vaccine when travelling to parts of the world where diphtheria is widespread.