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Although rare in Australia, diphtheria continues to cause illness in some countries. It’s possible to have the disease without symptoms, so it could be brought into Australia by travellers to or from countries where disease still occurs.

Did you know?

  • Diphtheria was once a common cause of death in Australia. A vaccine has been available since the early 1900s and today the disease has almost disappeared in Australia.
A young man standing in front of a university building.

What is it?

Diphtheria is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease of the airways or sometimes of the skin that is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The poisonous toxin produced by the bacteria usually covers the throat in a grey membrane, making it very hard to breathe. If the poison spreads beyond the throat, it can also lead to skin sores, nerve damage and heart problems.

Diphtheria is now extremely rare in Australia.The infection can be brought into the country by people who have travelled to, or have come from, countries where diphtheria is still common.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of diphtheria appear gradually, between 2 and 5 days after infection. It usually starts as a mild fever, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, generally feeling unwell and a loss of appetite.

Within 2 to 3 days of these first symptoms appearing, a firm, fleshy, grey and sticky coating develops in the throat, which bleeds if attempts are made to remove it. The neck may swell up and skin sores may appear.

Without treatment, diphtheria can lead to serious problems such as suffocation, heart damage, kidney damage, nerve damage and sometimes death. Anyone can be affected by diphtheria, but the risks are greater for those who are unimmunised.

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

How is it spread?

Diphtheria is spread from person to person via coughing and sneezing. Less commonly, you could get sick by coming into contact with skin sores or items soiled by an infected person.

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 – these outwardly healthy people are infectious for about 6 weeks.

Who is at risk?

You may be at increased risk of diphtheria if you: 

  • have not been adequately immunised and are exposed to a person infected with diphtheria,
  • have immune system problems, or
  • travel to countries where diphtheria is still common.

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

Prevention and Treatment options

  • Children and Adults

    Practicing good hygiene can help to prevent illness and the spread of germs:

    • covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or into your upper sleeve or elbow
    • wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
    • if no water is available use an alcohol-based hand-rub

    The risk of diphtheria can be reduced through immunisation.

    In addition to practicing strict hygiene measures, people who are in close contact or caring for someone who has diphtheria may also need a booster immunisation and a course of antibiotics.

    Without treatment, diphtheria can cause life threatening complications. If suspected, treatment should begin immediately in hospital. The goal of diphtheria treatment is to neutralise the toxin produced by the bacteria. An antitoxin is given along with antibiotics to help kill and remove diphtheria bacteria from your body. Other treatments may be required depending on the severity of the infection. Patients infected with diphtheria need to be kept in isolation until they are no longer infectious.

    Please speak to a healthcare professional for more information about diphtheria prevention and treatment options

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  • Travellers

    It is important to plan ahead and see a healthcare professional at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss prevention options and travel health.

PM-AU-AVX-WCNT-190032 Date of GSK Approval: January 2021