Diphtheria is an illness caused by bacteria. There are 2 types:
Respiratory diphtheria. This type affects the throat, nose, and tonsils.
Skin (cutaneous) diphtheria. This type affects the skin.
Diphtheria is a childhood disease that was common in the early 1920s. A vaccine against diphtheria has made it very rare today in the U.S. and other developed countries.
Diphtheria bacteria can enter the body through the nose and mouth. It can also enter through a break in the skin. It is spread by breathing in droplets that contain diphtheria bacteria from an infected person when they cough, sneeze, or laugh.
Symptoms occur 2 to 5 days after contact with the bacteria. Symptoms can be a bit different for each child. The most common symptoms are below.
Common symptoms of respiratory diphtheria may include:
A shrill sound caused when breathing in (stridor)
Enlarged lymph glands in the neck
Increased heart rate
Swelling of the roof of the mouth (palate)
Symptoms of skin diphtheria are often milder. They may include yellow spots or sores on the skin.
The symptoms of diphtheria can seem like other health conditions. Have your child see their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. They will give your child a physical exam. This may be enough to diagnose the illness. The provider may also swab the mouth for a culture to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Antibiotic medicine is used to treat respiratory diphtheria as early as possible, before toxins are released in the blood. An antitoxin may be given along with the antibiotics, if needed. Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all medicines.
If your child has severe breathing problems, they may need a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator). A breathing tube is inserted in the front of the windpipe (trachea) in a small surgery. This is called a tracheostomy. The tube is left in place as long as it’s needed. It's removed as your child gets better.
Infection with the diphtheria bacteria produces a toxin in the blood. This toxin can damage the heart, kidneys, and nervous system. In addition, a child may die from being unable to breathe if the disease blocks the throat.
Children in the U.S. are given a triple vaccine (DTaP) that includes diphtheria within a year of being born. This combination vaccine also protects against tetanus and pertussis. Because diphtheria is still common in underdeveloped countries, the vaccine is still needed in case of contact with a person who is carrying the bacteria.
Most children who get all their shots will be protected during childhood. There are many types of the vaccine, but the newer form is the DTaP. The DTaP vaccine is less likely to cause reactions than earlier types given.
The CDC advises that children need 5 DTaP shots at these ages:
Shot 1 at 2 months old
Shot 2 at 4 months old
Shot 3 at 6 months old
Shot 4 between ages 15 months and 18 months
Shot 5 when a child enters school at 4 to 6 years old
A preteen (age 11 or 12) should get a booster dose of another form of this vaccine called Tdap at a checkup. Talk with your child's healthcare provider for advice.
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
Diphtheria is an illness caused by bacteria. There are 2 types. Respiratory diphtheria affects the throat, nose, and tonsils. Skin (cutaneous) diphtheria affects the skin.
Common symptoms of respiratory diphtheria may include sore throat, trouble breathing, and low fever.
Symptoms of skin diphtheria may include yellow spots or sores on the skin.
Antibiotic medicine is used to treat respiratory diphtheria as early as possible before toxins are released in the blood. An antitoxin may be given along with the antibiotics.
If your child has severe breathing problems, they may need a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator).
The CDC advises that children get 5 shots of a triple vaccine (DTaP) at specific ages.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are and when they should be reported.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours, and on weekends and holidays. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.