Diphtheria is a serious infection of the throat, nose, and skin caused by diphtheria bacteria. The bacteria makes a toxin or poison, that can spread through the bloodstream and cause breathing problems, heart failure, and nerve damage. Diphtheria can kill up to one in ten people who get the disease. It was once the most common cause of death in Canadian children under the age of five. Today, diphtheria is rare because of vaccination.

Diphtheria spreads easily between people by direct contact or through respiratory droplets, like from coughing or sneezing. People can also get sick from touching infected open skin sores or by touching clothing and objects that has the bacteria on it.

Those at increased risk of getting sick include:

  • People living in the same household
  • People who were in close contact with the infected person

Symptoms usually start two to five days after being exposed to the bacteria and range from mild to severe. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen neck
  • Weakness
  • Feeling tired
  • Fever and chills
  • Runny nose
  • Open sores or rashes on the skin
  • Paralysis (unable to move)
  • Heart failure

In severe cases, the bacteria produce a poison (toxin) that causes a thick grey or white patch at the back of the throat. This can block the airway making it hard to breathe or swallow and create a barking cough. Some people who have diphtheria will not show symptoms but can still spread it.

The most important way to prevent diphtheria is to make sure you and your child(ren) are vaccinated. In Canada, diphtheria vaccination is part of Ontario’s Publicly Funded Routine Immunization Schedule.

  • Usually, one vaccine (e.g. DTap-IPV-Hib) is given to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and haemophilus influenzae type B.
  • Four doses are given at two, four, six, and 18 months of age, and a booster dose at four to six years of age.
  • Diphtheria vaccines are available from a health care provider’s office.

Diphtheria vaccines are safe, effective, and free.

If your child misses a vaccine or is due for their next dose, these vaccines are available from a health care provider’s office.

Diphtheria is now rare due to vaccinations and testing is required to confirm the diagnosis. A swab from the back of the throat/nose, or from an open skin sore can test for diphtheria.

Diphtheria treatments include:

  • Diphtheria antitoxin (medication that prevents the disease from getting worse) to stop the bacteria toxin from damaging the body.
  • Antibiotics to kill the bacteria. Most people with diphtheria stop spreading the bacteria to others 48 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment. However, it is important to finish taking all the antibiotics that are prescribed to make sure all the bacteria get completely removed.
  • Talk to your health care provider or Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600
  • Call 811 to connect to a registered nurse day or night for free, secure and confidential health advice.