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.

Diptheria vaccination

Diptheria is rare in the UK because babies and children are routinely vaccinated against it.

Travel vaccination

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

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

Diptheria is found in may areas, including:

  • Asia
  • the South Pacific
  • the Middle East
  • eastern Europe
  • the Caribbean

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

How diptheria is spread

Diptheria 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 diptheria

Symptoms usually start 2 to 5 days after becoming infected.

The main symptoms of diptheria are:

  • a thick grey-white coating at the back of your throat
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
  • feeling sick
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • swollen glands in your neck
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

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

  • pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands
  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin

Get urgent medical help if you have symptoms of diptheria and:

  • you're in an area of the world where the infection is widespread
  • you've recently returned from somewhere where the infection is widespread
  • you've been in contact with someone who has diptheria

Diptheria needs to be treated quickly in hospital to help prevent serious complications, such as breathing difficulties or heart problems.

Treatments for diptheria

The main treatments are:

  • antibiotics to kills the diptheria bacteria
  • medicines that stop the effects of the harmful substances (toxins) produced by the bacteria
  • thoroughly cleaning any infected wounds if you have diptheria affecting your skin

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 diptheria may also need to take antibiotics or may be given a dose of the diptheria vaccine.

Call NHS Direct Wales

If you can't speak to your GP or don't know what to do next call NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47 or NHS 111 if available in your area.




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Selected links

NHS Direct Wales links

Childhood vaccinations

Heart block

Sore throat

External links

WHO: diphtheria


Welsh Government Leaflets - Click here for immunisation leaflets

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 01/10/2018 15:09:32