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Diphtheria is rare in Australia but can still be brought in to the country by people who have travelled to or have come from countries where diphtheria is still common.

Diphtheria - What is it?

Diphtheria is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease caused by a type of bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacteria produce toxins (poison), which cause throat and breathing difficulties, however it can also affect the skin, producing skin sores. The toxins can also cause nerve damage and heart problems.

Patients with diphtheria may need to be hospitalised so they can be monitored and treated.

Diphtheria was a common cause of death in Australia, however due to the increasing use of diphtheria vaccines since the 1930s it has almost disappeared.

It is important to continue vaccinating against diphtheria because the infection can be brought in to the country by people who have travelled to, or have come from, countries where diphtheria is still common.

Diphtheria - What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of diphtheria begin to develop between 2 to 5 days after infection.

Diphtheria symptoms are gradual and usually begin as a mild fever, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, generally feeling unwell and a loss of appetite. Within 2 to 3 days a firm, fleshy, grey and sticky coating develops in the throat, which bleeds if attempts are made to remove it. Neck swelling and skin sores can also occur.

Without treatment, more serious problems such as suffocation, heart damage, and nerve damage can occur. The risk of serious complications and death is greater among those younger than 5 years of age and those older than 40 years of age.

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following diphtheria infection. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about diphtheria infection

Diphtheria - How is it spread?

Diphtheria is spread by respiratory droplets (via coughing or sneezing) or by coming in contact with skin sores or items soiled by persons infected with diphtheria.

A person infected with diphtheria can spread the disease for up to 4 weeks. Some people, known as carriers, can be infected with diphtheria without showing any symptoms.

Carriers of diphtheria can spread the disease for longer than 4 weeks.

Diphtheria - Who is at risk?

People at increased risk of diphtheria include:

  • anyone exposed to a person infected with diphtheria 
  • anyone who has not been adequately immunised
  • travellers to countries where diphtheria is still common

Other people may be at risk of diphtheria infection. Please speak to your doctor regarding your individual circumstances.

Diphtheria - Vaccination

Diphtheria vaccination is recommended and provided free for infants, children and adolescents as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). It is usually given at 2, 4 and 6 months, with a booster given at 4 years and again between 10 and 17 years of age.

All adults aged 50 years or older that have not received a booster dose in the previous 10 years should receive a diphtheria booster dose.

Diphtheria booster vaccination is also recommended for travellers to countries where health services are difficult to access, if they have not received a diphtheria containing vaccine in the last 10 years (or 5 years for travel that is considered high risk).

If you are planning on becoming pregnant, please discuss with your doctor whether vaccination against diphtheria is appropriate for you.

It is important to complete the recommended course of vaccinations to help protect against diphtheria infection and help maintain immunity.

In Australia, vaccination against diphtheria is provided in combination vaccines that also help to protect against other diseases.

Diphtheria - Treatment

Diphtheria treatment involves using diphtheria antitoxin which neutralizes the toxin produced by the bacteria. Antibiotics are also given which help kill and remove diphtheria bacteria from your body.

Patients infected with diphtheria need to be kept in isolation, until they are no longer able to infect others.

For further information about diphtheria immunisation in your area, contact your State or Territory Health Department or doctor.


Some side effects may be experienced following vaccination. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your healthcare professional.




AUS/VAC/0006/15. Date of approval: March 2015.